You might have missed it Monday. In case you did, here’s what happened in Cheyenne: Lawmakers want to give government officials the right to lie to Wyoming citizens.
Even worse, they want to lie and then use the law to cover up.
On Monday, Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, introduced an amendment aimed at changing public records and information law in the Equality State. It would mean that local governments down to the smallest level (think parks and recreation boards) would not have to disclose the records and recommendations they used in reaching the final decisions.
Who decides who gets a bid on any project?
Want to know about a zoning variance?
Want to know how a lucrative city contract was awarded?
What about a study examining a convention center?
Want to know which lobbyists submitted information to your representative?
Forget about it. Elected officials could tell you whatever they want and you would have absolutely no information to say otherwise.
For all the big talk of transparency, responsibility and open government, Senate File 25 not only squashes the spirit of the openness, but also means citizens won’t have a chance to be informed about decisions until long after they’ve been made.
If that’s the case, why the sham and spectacle of a legislative session in the first place? Why hold city council meetings? Why go to all the trouble of public input when the real decision makers are shielded in such a way so as to never be seen?
This pernicious legislation is simply not the way things are done here. Democracy and good government happen out in the open — they are the bedrock and foundation of the trust that is necessary between the elected and the governed.
The prevailing attitude (the measure passed the Senate by a vote of 20 to 9) seems to be: Trust us, we’re from the government — we know what’s best for you.
How many times have you heard that? How many times has it worked out for you?
Does the average Wyoming resident really believe that government knows best? Are you willing to trust every decision legislators make? Are you willing to give them the right to secret away documents so that you and no one else will ever see them?
It’s one thing to fight against public scrutiny, but it’s quite another to actually pass laws granting the power of secrecy.
It’s amazing how many of our state politicians run on the feel-good, sound-good platforms of open government and more accountability, but as soon as they are elected, rush to enact laws that effectively keep the public in the dark.
Here’s what it means for the average Wyoming resident: You can ask your legislators and local government officials how they arrived at their decisions, and it would be perfectly acceptable for them to ignore the request. If they wanted, they could even argue that disclosing documents and information they used in making a decision — ostensibly on your behalf — would be illegal.
When it comes right down to it, lawmakers seem to believe that we’re too dumb or unsophisticated to understand what they’re doing. Moreover, there is an arrogance that runs a mile deep in the legislation: The average Wyoming resident is not entitled to know what public officials are doing with public money or on the public’s behalf.
Notice any word there?
That’s right — public.
If you need any further proof of the bill’s importance, take Casper’s own Sen. Kit Jennings. Through publicly available documents, the Star-Tribune discovered last week that he’s both a lobbyist for an energy company and was planning on introducing a bill that would have likely benefitted his company financially. If the public records laws the Wyoming Legislature wants to enact passes, we can’t help but wonder what other conflicts of interest will never be revealed.
Jennings and other legislators would like to make this a fight with the media. But really, this issue has very little to do with folks in our industry. We are granted no special privilege that isn’t available to every other member of the public. And that’s as it should be.
We just happen to work with public officials and documents every day. What industry better to sound the alarm of government secrecy than folks who work holding those same folks accountable?
Jennings said that lawmakers shouldn’t be influenced from the media. He must take his colleagues for simple-minded folk. Does he really believe the media carries so much weight that his fellow lawmakers cannot stand up to scrutiny from the press? Funny, we thought a free press was part of the democratic process, but we’ll go back and re-read the First Amendment. We surely must have missed something.
His colleague, Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, got it right. He pointed out this legislation has nothing to do with a politician’s feelings about the media. Instead, this has everything to do with the public’s access and giving input. He noted that such a law would mean a study regarding a local zoning change would be off-limits until after the vote.
Luckily, the lawmakers don’t necessarily have the final say here.
First, contact your legislator and ask them to vote “no” on any legislation that would curttail the public’s access to information. Here’s a link to the contact list: http://legisweb.state.wy.us/LegislatorSummary/App_Themes/LSO/Word%20Contact%20Info.doc
Remember, this isn’t just about lawmakers in the Capitol. It would allow nearly any elected official at any level to deny you access to information.
Finally, if the Legislature can’t do the right thing, we hope Gov. Matt Mead will kill any bill that comes to his desk that takes away the public’s ability to hold their elected leaders accountable. Mead ran on a platform of transparency and accountability. This legislation runs against the open, straightforward tone his administration has set so far.
A free people depend on open records. Where exactly would such legislation leave Wyoming?
And what do lawmakers and officials have to hide?