Gone are the days of downloading hundreds of documents, emails and data from the Department of Environmental Quality on a flash drive, for free.
Wyoming environmental regulators will discuss charging members of the public for electronic records that would cost the agency more than $180 to assemble at a meeting in Jackson Friday.
The idea has stoked alarm from environmental groups who rely on free access when requesting information on contentious cases, from disputed coal mine permits to water quality issues. The DEQ’s spokesman said the vast majority of the requests they receive fall below the $180 threshold and maintains that the fees do not block the public from getting information.
They just have to pay for it sometimes.
“I think the misconception is that we are going to charge people to look at public records. That is the farthest thing from the truth,” said Joe Franken, business services administrator for Environmental Quality.
“Anybody can come in and inspect the public record, but if the agency is required to [find and make electronically available] public records, that is where the reasonable fee comes into play.”
More than a dozen state agencies have adopted the rules, put together by the state’s Department of Administration and Information last year, at the request of the Wyoming Legislature in 2014.
The AI department deferred comment to the state’s Attorney General’s Office, where a lawyer was not available for comment by press time.
The rules were meant to create a uniform system across state departments with consistent fees for public records. But it adds a hefty charge for materials and manpower to compensate agencies when staffers gather electronic information requested by the public, such as emails or documents that have not been scanned and archived electronically, if those documents are not already available in a format like a PDF.
The issue becomes particularly costly once the $180 benchmark is passed and the record request requires staff time: $40 an hour for upper level staffers, $30 an hour for IT personnel and $15.50 for clerical staff time.
State agencies were largely in favor of the rules, but disagreed with the $180 threshold, according to AI’s summary of the public comments from 2016.
Some asked for a lower amount before charges kicked in. Others wanted fees for any electronic data gathering; arguing that it takes up a significant amount of their employees’ time.
Groups that often seek public records, journalists and environmental groups for example, have been opposed to the rules.
In its comment when the rules were vetted last year, the Wyoming Press Association maintained that state law would forbid such a move.
“We feel very strongly that charging a fee to have a member of the public simply look at a document is contrary to the intent of Wyoming’s Public Record Act,” the group wrote.
It’s a stance shared by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which has rallied its members to comment or attend the upcoming meetings to protest the fees.
The argument of the landowners’ council, based in Sheridan, is that the DEQ is unique because of its directives under both state and federal law, which require public access.
Though the agency has a long history of transparency with the organization, this rule has stoked serious concern, said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Resource Council.
“This is a way to prevent the public from being involved,” she said. “It shouldn’t cost the public a lot of money to try and participate in the public arena. It is just wrong. Part of the business of government is to make their agency accessible and open and transparent to the public so we can be actively engaged in a democracy.”
In its recent battle with state regulators over Ramaco Carbon’s coal mining permit in Sheridan County, the Council received more than 10,000 pages of emails via a public records request that weren’t available in the department’s files, said Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the group.
“You can go in the public records room, and you’re not given the full story until you request electronic records,” Anderson said. “For every permit application there is an official correspondence file and that file does have some emails that are printed out. But it is not all of them, as we found with Ramaco.”
For its part, state regulators at the DEQ say they are losing nothing in transparency, but simply following a mandate that came from the Legislature.
The fees are assessed for electronic documents that are not already available, in situations that are relatively uncommon, said Keith Guille, DEQ spokesman.
“It’s important to note that the majority, 90-something percent, would not go above that ($180) threshold,” said Keith Guille, spokesman for the environmental department. “We are talking when it’s going to take hours, weeks and months of agency time to produce and construct these electronic documents.”
The department is in the process of converting to a paperless system, which would make much of the documentation requested by the public readily available electronically, Guille said. It is also working on an online server that connects people requesting public records with the agency staffers, a move that should also increase transparency in the digital age, he said.
The Wyoming Water and Waste Advisory Board will meet at 9 a.m. Friday at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department building on 420 N. Cache St. in Jackson.
Though it’s already gone through approval from the state department that crafted the rule, the DEQ’s three advisory boards also have to give it approval. It will ultimately go before the Environmental Quality Council, an independent body that hears contested cases and approves rule changes for the DEQ.