The Legislative Service Office won’t make recordings of legislative committee meetings available online because confidential conversations between its staff and legislators could be picked up by microphones.
LSO Director Matt Obrecht said his office needs an exemption to confidentiality restrictions that was included in a bill mandating posting of committee meeting recordings. The state Senate killed the bill in the session that concluded earlier this month.
Parasols raised during Sunshine Week
The week of March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, when press organizations nationally celebrate government transparency and the free access to information. The Wyoming Press Association — and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marti Halverson (R, HD-22, Etna) — said the concerns about confidentiality statutes being violated during public meetings were overblown. They hope to see the bill brought back next session.
Speaking to the Casper Star-Tribune after the bill’s failure, Senate President Eli Bebout said the bill wasn’t necessary for the LSO to post recordings online. “They can do it without a law,” he said.
Obrecht disagreed with Bebout’s assessment that his office didn’t need the legislation, however; he noted that most communication between LSO staff and lawmakers is confidential by statute.
During meetings, there’s always the possibility of a conversation between a lawmaker and an LSO researcher or attorney being picked up on a recording along with public testimony, Obrecht said. Halverson’s bill would have exempted such recorded conversations from the confidentiality statute.
Obrecht said his office needed that exception to make uploading all the audio recordings online feasible. Without it, LSO staff would have to listen to hours of footage — and interim meetings can run for two or more days — to ensure no confidential conversations were picked up by the recorder. Last year, the LSO had staff at 156 days of legislative meetings, Obrecht said.
Confidentiality concerns blown out of proportion
“Who’s discussing confidential matters during a public meeting?” asked Jim Angell, director of the Wyoming Press Association. He said he understood the LSO’s concerns about the increased workload, but found the concern over confidentiality in the midst of a public meeting unfounded. A member of the public could just as easily pick up confidential conversations if using the recorder on their cell phone, he said.
Angell also said the Wyoming Legislature is exempt from the Open Meetings Act. Legislative committees can go into an executive session at any time and close the doors on the public without giving a reason, unlike other governmental bodies in the state. To their credit, it’s not a tool they use often, he said.
Having recordings available online would’ve been a good tool for the public, Angell said, but the bill’s failure was not unduly damaging.
“It would’ve been a real addition to maintaining openness for the Legislature,” Angell said. “The fact of the matter is that these recordings are still available [to the public].”
Bill sponsor Halverson said she was surprised by the Senate vote killing the legislation and intends to try again next session. The bill would have given members of the public, lobbyists and other lawmakers a chance to listen to testimony and debate at committee meetings they couldn’t attend, she said. It was also a response to accusations of secrecy legislators faced at the start of the session. The statutory confidentiality that exists between lawmakers and the LSO was ignored by the press, she said.
Halverson said she intends to speak with senators and explore their resistance to the bill. She believes a compromise can be found so that in the future recordings can go online.
“I don’t quite understand the burden that [LSO] staff say they’ll have if they have to go back and listen to the recording for extraneous conversation,” she said.
Halverson also said she sees easy fixes for the LSO’s concerns. Legislators shouldn’t have a private conversation with LSO staff when the microphones are on, she said. Instead, they should wait until a break in the proceedings.
Members of the public can still request a recording of a legislative meeting, Obrecht said. He asked that requests be made for specific agenda items, to reduce the burden for his staff of redacting any extraneous confidential conversations.