Years ago, accessing public records at state agencies was as easy as showing up and asking a secretary for photocopies of what you need, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
It’s not so simple these days, where a large records requests could involve sifting through thousands of emails that some state agencies say is burdensome on their staff. But a state push to charge for copies of public records, as well as charge hourly rates for the staff time it takes to compile records over $180, has irked environmental groups who say the cost will be a barrier to public access.
“What does the average person do?” said Casey Quinn, a Cheyenne based organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “If it’s hard for us as a nonprofit, I can’t imagine (the impact on) a single person who wants to look up documents. They won’t be able to.”
Last week, members of an independent board tasked with approving rule changes at the Department of Environmental Quality sided with environmentalists and voted 2 to 1 against implementing the fees.
The five-member board needs its full majority to actually halt the change, and will vote again at an upcoming meeting.
“We respect the process here,” said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ll just bring it before them again.”
Guille was not sure what would happen if the air quality board’s next vote mirrors the first.
It could introduce an administrative stalemate within the Department of Environmental Quality.
The DEQ needs board approval to change rules. But it also argues that it is mandated to implement the fees by the Legislature, which tasked the Department of Administration and Information in 2014 with writing a uniform public records fee policy for all state departments.
The policy would charge groups or individuals for copies and scans of documents such a mining permits and reclamation agreements, as well as put in a threshold for the cost of staff time, when the request includes electronic records like emails or documents that haven’t been scanned and placed on file.
The department does not charge for staff time up until a $180 benchmark. Once the cost of a records request is estimated by the agency to exceed $180, hourly fees kick in. Clerical staff time is worth $15.50 per hour. IT personnel cost $30 an hour and upper level staffers are valued at $40 per hour. The person requesting records would have to pay up front.
Agencies have quietly been complying with the new policy one by one, but the environmental department, where a number of groups in Wyoming regularly seek information on the land, air and water impacts of the state’s various industries, has not had such an easy time.
“This is a huge barrier to democracy,” said Quinn of the resource council. “They are trying to justify it by saying other agencies do it, which regardless if [others] do it, it’s still bad practice.”
Those who oppose the fees say the costs are exorbitant. The Powder River Basin Resource Council recently requested email communications between the department and a coal mine applying for a permit. It returned more than 10,000 pages of documents.
The fees could make those kinds of records out of reach, said Heilig, of the Wyoming outdoor Council.
“I think some agencies, I’m not saying DEQ in particular, have lost sight of the fact that they are working on behalf of the public,” said Heilig, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Providing access to the public, I’d argue, should be a key part of their job.”
Guille, of Environmental Quality, argued that the agency’s documents are still available to the public, as they always have been.
But when it comes to staff time, reviewing emails and considering the information involved can be a significant time burden on employees, he said. The policy will balance that with compensation, he said. Cost of paper copies, meanwhile, just makes sense, he said.
“If someone wants to come in and make copies on our copy machine, yeah, they are going to pay for that,” Guille said. “Those are utilities and resources of the state.”