Accountability & Open Government

ESPC makes transparency, accountability its top priority

Improvements to public meetings and records laws pass in 2012 session

Equality State Policy Center volunteers canvass in Fort Washakie to encourage voting.

Volunteers canvass in Fort Washakie to encourage voting.

The Equality State Policy Center’s first projects focused on making Wyoming state and local governments more accountable to the people they serve, and this area continues to be the ESPC’s top priority. In the 2012 legislative session, the Equality State Policy Center successfully lobbied for passage of two bills authored by the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee. Ultimately passed, the measures improve the state’s public meetings and public records laws. A consortium of interests that included, among others, the Wyoming Press Association, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM), the Wyoming Association of County Commissioners (WCCA), conservation districts, county clerks, the public library association, and the University of Wyoming, jointly backed the compromise legislation. The consortium also urged the state to prepare a training program to inform elected officials and public employees so they understand requirements of Wyoming’s sunshine laws. The new laws make clear that written communication by public officials and other information in electronic form are public records. Readily available records must be provided. If a record is not immediately available, a document custodian must acknowledge receipt of a written request for it within seven days. The compromise law does not impose a deadline for actually providing a record. The law specifies that the public can review records during regular business hours. The new open meetings law specifies that a public board must have a quorum to take an action. If a meeting is conducted by electronic means, the public must be able to sit in and hear or read the discussion as it occurs. A change to notice requirements for special meetings requires eight hours notice of these meetings. The change addresses problems with some elected boards in the state that had called special meetings and held them within an hour of their announcement, making it impossible for the public to attend. The ESPC and its allies had sought 24 hours notice of special meetings but agreed to the shorter period in the compromise that paved the way for passage of the bill. The new law gives boards more time to ratify actions taken in emergencies. The law now requires public boards to announce the reason for going into an executive session. Wyoming’s open meetings law for many years has authorized meeting in executive session to consider personnel matters, litigation, and real estate purchases, but boards were not compelled to announce why an executive session is necessary. Efforts during the 2012 session to amend the bill to allow a “deliberative privilege” exemption failed. Advocates argued that the exemption would allow public entities to withhold records documenting the thinking behind their decision-making process. This could include opinions, recommendations and projections. Gov. Dave Freudenthal made a similar argument in a 2009 lawsuit filed against the governor by Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc. The ESPC believes the deliberative process privilege flies in the face of strong public policy in favor of disclosure and openness. It also is contrary to legal principles of discovery and undercuts the search for the truth both in court and in public policy forums.