WORLAND — Elected officials, members of the news media and others are working this summer to reach consensus on a broad plan to reform Wyoming’s public records and open meetings laws. Among the issues being debated are whether the public will continue to have access to officials’ emails during the early stages of drafting municipal laws, reasonable and equitable access to online records and a timely response to records requests.
After a set of bills addressing meetings and records backed by the Wyoming Press Association failed during the 2011 legislative session, the Joint Judiciary Committee has heard testimony from government officials and reporters who are working to find common ground on changes to the laws.
A working group of editors, publishers, elected officials, state agency staffers and others has invited interested parties to a July 7 meeting in Riverton to discuss changes in the law. Additional committee meetings are planned for August and October.
The result of that process is likely to be a consensus bill sponsored by the committee for consideration in 2012, with any divergent issues left to be addressed later as part of separate legislation.
Both sides say the state’s public records law has not kept pace with technology, an issue that has also come up in county clerks’ offices around the state as local record-keepers wrestle with decisions about how much information to release on the Internet, and what fees to charge for online access to those databases.
Municipal officials across the state are seeking a change in the law that would roll back public access to e-mails sent as part of discussion and debate leading up to the drafting of local ordinances.
The so-called “deliberative process” exemption sought by the Wyoming Association of Municipalities would mean that many e-mail messages that are currently considered public records would no longer be available for public scrutiny.
Emails to and from public officials that are part of the deliberative process, for instance, in drafting a new ordinance, “should be treated no differently than a telephone call,” Mark Harris, legislative director for WAM, told the committee during an April meeting in Worland.
Harris said email exchanges have largely taken on the same role formerly held by telephone calls in relaying casual discussions between public officials, constituents and staff members about nascent policy or legal issues.
Jim Angell, WPA executive director, opposed such an exemption, telling the committee that emails are a written record, while a phone call typically doesn’t exist in recorded form.
The Wyoming Supreme Court last year ruled that then-governor Dave Freudenthal wrongly withheld draft budget figures from The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle by claiming the records were part of state government’s deliberative process.
Harris said that municipal leaders should be free to discuss broad issues “at that very early stage” without public scrutiny.
“The public should not be removed from that early deliberative process,” Angell said.
D. Reed Eckhardt, executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and WPA president, said after the meeting that he had seen cases where the public became aware of important factors influencing a local ordinance only after emails and other records were uncovered through public records requests.
Without the context provided by such records, “you don’t know what’s been traded and what’s been compromised along the way, and you don’t always know the motivation for it,” Eckhardt said.
Harris and others said the law doesn’t address some electronic records like text messages or voicemail recordings, issues no one seemed anxious to debate.
Angell said parties were close to an agreement on determining a fixed deadline by which agencies must grant or deny a records request and state a timeline for providing the documents. The law currently mandates no timeframe for responses.
Cindy DeLancey, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, told the committee that there is a vast difference in staffing, expertise and technology between state agencies, county departments and small governing boards, “so we’re trying to come up with some language on how you cover that whole range of the continuum to make sure it’s not unduly burdensome.”
Wyoming has more than 400 special districts governing public hospitals, cemeteries, conservation districts and other entities, often with small staffs that may include volunteers or officials paid only a modest stipend.
Bobbie Frank, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, said that some districts have only one full-time employee, making it difficult to meet deadlines for fulfilling records requests.
“This isn’t just about access from the press, but also about third-party groups,” Frank said.
Environmental groups and other organizations involved in public land planning have made broad records requests “that have created quite a workload, to the point they’re struggling to get out into the field to get their work done,” she said.
The press association has called for stiffer penalties, including jail time, for those who violate records and meetings laws, noting that charges are almost never brought for such offenses.
“The law traditionally has made a distinction between volunteer board members and compensated board members in terms of liability,” said Rep. Kermit C. Brown (R-Laramie), co-chair of the committee.
Brown said he worried about volunteer board members facing criminal penalties for inadvertent violations.
“Only a fool would serve on one of these boards under that front-loaded liability,” he said.
Jeani Stone, county attorney for Campbell County, told the committee that she would like to see the meetings law changed to make it easier to win a conviction against violators. Stone brought charges last year against members of the Campbell County Cemetery Board, alleging that they failed to give proper notice of upcoming meetings. No one was convicted as a result of those charges, partly because the law makes it difficult to prosecute alleged violations, she said.
“We’re not out there looking for people to prosecute, only when it becomes an issue over and over again,” Stone said.
Rep. Bob Brechtel (R-Casper) said he worried about crafting a statute that protected “people that really have good intentions from still getting dragged into court.”
“How in the world are people going to protect themselves from the thought police?” Brechtel said.
In Park County, concerns about the release of personally identifying information on the Internet prompted County Clerk Jerri B. Torczon to cut access to an online database of public records that had become a vital tool for local realtors, bankers, attorneys and appraisers.
Torczon said in an April meeting with Park County commissioners that she also wanted to recoup the $3,500 annual cost of maintaining the online database by charging a fee to users. The previous clerk had made the database available for free.
Torczon said last week that county clerks across the state are struggling to decide which documents to put online and how much to charge for access, and that guidance or an updated statute from the Legislature would help standardize the process and clarify the law.
“It’s not your right for me to put it on the Web,” Torczon said during the meeting. “You’re certainly welcome to come in to my office — that’s public.”
Torczon said in the meeting that death certificates made available online by the Park County database contained social security numbers, and she feared that identity thieves might illegally exploit that information or other personal data.
In fact, the U.S. Social Security Administration maintains a database of names and Social Security numbers for most individuals who have died since 1936. The public database can be searched at a number of genealogy research websites.
After making updates to protect personal information, Torczon later restored online access to a more limited set of county records. But many of the excluded online records containing personal information are still available in paper form to visitors to the clerk’s office.
Users of the Park County online database must pay a $100 annual fee and sign a contract agreeing to “indemnify and hold harmless Park County and anyone involved in storing, retrieving, or displaying this information for any damage that may be caused by accessing this information over the internet.”
Many users of the database told commissioners in April that they didn’t mind paying a nominal fee, while others said they saw no reason to pay for access since the clerk’s office already charged fees to record documents.
“The system may cost $3,500 per year, but in my opinion, it will save the county more money than that,” Cody realtor Johnny Hannah told commissioners. “It just creates more workload at the clerk’s office if everyone who uses the system has to come to the courthouse and stand in line.”
Park County Assessor Pat Meyer said a newly available online database of property ownership and valuation maps has greatly reduced his staff’s workload, giving them more time to travel the county and audit oil and gas properties and document new additions and un-permitted construction.
“I think we’re going to make more money,” said Meyer, a longtime Assessor’s Office employee who had been developing the system while serving under the previous assessor.
“Everything we’ve got online is the same thing we’ve been giving the public for the last 20 years. It’s all public information, we’ve just been emailing or faxing it to people or they come in all the time for it,” Meyer said.
Meyer has connected his property ownership records with a companion online database provided free by the Park County Treasurer’s Office so users can easily look up property tax and payment records using the two systems.
“Now we have so many less calls in here, and we’re able to get so much more work done,” he said.
If you go…
Members of the press, government officials and others will meet at 9 a.m. July 7 at the Riverton City Hall to discuss changes to state open meetings and public records laws.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]