Obtaining records that are public under state law is often a tough task in Wyoming. Just ask veteran journalist Jim Angell, who has been a leading public records advocate for more than three decades.
As the head of the Wyoming Press Association from 1999 until his retirement last year, Angell recalled the ordeal of a Washakie County resident who sought public information from an irrigation district.
Angell said the state’s Public Records Act as originally passed was “a very common-sense law that worked well,” but it contained one major flaw. Legislators didn’t set a deadline for state agency officials and local governmental entities to turn over requested information.
In the case of the irrigation district, the intransigent keeper of those records informed the person who wanted to see them that he’d take his sweet time fulfilling the request.
The WPA and its attorney, Bruce Moats of Cheyenne, eventually intervened to pry the records out of the district’s hands. It took three years, Angell said, but the citizen eventually received a box full of records copies — many of which he didn’t even need.
“They charged the poor guy $400,” Angell said, adding that the district did eventually sort out the records that pertained to the man’s request, reducing his bill to $120.
Angell said it was an extreme case, but by no means unique. He’s seen plenty of records disputes over the years end up in court, making what should be a simple and transparent process expensive and time-consuming for all involved. The lawsuit filed against the University of Wyoming by WyoFile, the Casper Star-Tribune and the publisher of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, for example, has taken months and cost thousands.
Such foot dragging is one of the primary reasons Angell’s happy that Gov. Mark Gordon — who has said government transparency is a goal of his new administration — appointed an ombudsman of public records last week. I was also glad to hear the news.
Ruth Van Mark will be the first to serve in that position and has been directed to create a system in which she will mediate disputes between agencies and parties requesting information. She will determine if records are public or confidential.
A Goshen County native, Van Mark worked in Washington, D.C., for many years before returning to Wyoming. She was the minority staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, and majority staff director for the Subcommittee on Transportation. She also served as the legislative director for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for six years.
I reached out to Van Mark to find out how she plans to do her job, but she understandably declined to comment. She is still establishing the dispute process and contacting the keepers of public records throughout the state.
Angell said he believes the state’s first ombudsman has the credentials to pull off what he expects will be a tough task. He’s been lobbying at the Capitol for improved public records and public meeting access since 1999, and he’s had his fair share of battles with lawmakers over the matter.
But he praised the Legislature for creating the ombudsman position earlier this year as part of Senate File 57: Public records, which clarified the process of requesting public records.
The press is involved in most of the high-profile cases of governmental entities withholding public information, but journalists aren’t alone. Public records belong to, and can be requested by, everyone. Few private citizens, however, have the know-how or the resources to challenge a records request denial, much less pursue the records in court. But access to this information is paramount.
“It’s vital to our democracy,” Angell said. “It’s how citizens determine how their government operates.”
The law has been amended several times, and now comes with a 30-day deadline to fulfill requests for public records. Only a couple states have a longer time limit, but Angell said the establishment of a deadline was an essential improvement.
Nevertheless, over the years he’s observed Wyoming governmental entities increasingly reluctant to release information, citing alleged privacy concerns. “What we’re seeing is a lot more hair-splitting,” Angell reported.
One example is a case that the Wyoming Supreme Court decided in favor of public records access last January. The court said it sought to avoid an “absurd result” when it ruled that the Jackson Hole Airport cannot refuse to share airport-related documents. The airport had attempted to bypass the Public Records Act because it is run jointly by Teton County and city of Jackson.
The high court has a long history of siding with public interests in such lawsuits. In a landmark 1983 case, the Sheridan Press sued the city of Sheridan over its chief of police’s decision to withhold all daily logs and police case reports.
The court ruled in favor of the newspaper, declaring that the police chief must consider each request on a case-by-case basis and provide a written explanation for withholding certain documents. The ruling changed the way all Wyoming law enforcement agencies must respond to public record requests.
“The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is a public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business,” the court noted. “Furthermore, it is for government to remember that the written, viewing and broadcasting press are the eyes and ears of the people.”
Many entities are reluctant to release information about public employees’ salaries. Yet the courts have consistently ruled that such expenditures are a matter of public record and must be disclosed.
Some disputes over public records are simply a misunderstanding between the parties over what is public information. But it’s clear that certain agencies, districts and boards prefer stonewalling the public to subjecting themselves to the appropriate oversight that comes with transparency. Some have even gone as far as claiming information can’t be released because it might raise privacy concerns in the future.
Having a public records ombudsman likely won’t keep every public information conflict from going to court. But the new position should serve to greatly reduce the costs to both the governmental entities and the pursuers of public records.
Once Van Mark establishes how she will handle public record disputes, Angell noted, “Everyone will be playing on the same page.”
That’s a huge improvement. When the state’s “sunshine laws” are strengthened, everybody wins.