Transparency tends to be a buzzword among political hopefuls nationwide — but they don’t always put that into practice after they get elected.
To remind politicians and the public about the importance of open government, the American Society of News Editors launched Sunshine Week in 2005.
According to its website, the weeklong celebration — which encourages dialogue about governmental transparency — is held each year in mid-March to coincide with the birthday of former president James Madison, a key advocate of our nation’s Bill of Rights.
In honor of the occasion, let’s take a look at some changes that have affected transparency in Casper the last couple of years.
In terms of making local government more accessible, the City Council took a step forward in August 2017 when it decided to install recording technology in the meeting room so work sessions could be viewed online.
From health conditions to evening work hours or a lack of transportation, there are plenty of reasons that residents who are interested in local government might not be able to get to City Hall on a Tuesday night.
Offering an additional option for viewing work sessions may have helped those who are homebound, or just balancing busy schedules, stay up to date on current affairs.
“It was part of our effort to be transparent,” Mayor Charlie Powell said Thursday. “Reading minutes after the fact didn’t give (citizens) a full accounting for what was said. I think it’s important for people to have access to what local government is doing.”
It cost the city about $7,000 to install the necessary equipment, according to City Manager Carter Napier. Given that it allows the Council to reach out to different demographics, Napier said he considered it a worthwhile investment.
“I was definitely very supportive,” he said, adding that work sessions can also be viewed on YouTube or on the city’s Facebook page.Official meetings, which are held in the council’s chamber room, were already broadcast on the government access channel and the internet.
Powell said the council has also considered moving its meetings from Tuesdays, due to the fact that it coincides with the Natrona County Commission meetings and some citizens would like the opportunity to attend both events.
But the council ultimately concluded that no other day would be ideal.
“The school board meets on Monday and Wednesday night is church night for a lot of people,” he said. “There is always going to be conflicts regardless for what night you choose.”
While the Council has made it easier to watch meetings and work sessions remotely, it has also recently placed a roadblock on the path to obtaining public information.
Last year, the Council established fees for electronic public records that take longer than one hour for city staff to produce. Council members discussed and approved the idea at a meeting last March.
Kenyne Humphrey, who was then a councilwoman, said at the time that she felt fees were necessary because Casper should be run like a business, particularly during economically tight times.
“A business needs to charge for its services,” she said.
Explaining that he heard some groups or citizens in various municipalities would request large amounts of records for the intended purpose of burdening the government, Powell said he also believed there was a need to set fees.
But Dallas Laird, who was then a councilman, argued that it would stifle the ability for citizens to get information. At Councilman Chris Walsh’s suggestion, the council ultimately agreed that it would not charge for requests that take an hour or less to produce.
Fees were then set for each additional hour of staff’s time, including $20.50 for clerical staff, $34 for information technology staff and $50 for professional staff.
Fees were also set for paper copies of public records, including 10 cents per page for black-and-white standard documents and 25 cents per page for black-and-white legal documents.
Sabrina King, the policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, said last year that setting fees for public records is a “disturbing trend” among many local governments.
Although it’s legal for governments to require payments, King said the ACLU supports free access to public information.
“(Fees) certainly do create a barrier to everyday citizens getting access to public records,” she said. “... It’s part of the government’s job to hand those documents over to the public.”
King noted that governments sometimes defend the decision by saying that they’ve been bombarded with frequent and massive requests — but they rarely provide evidence.
Napier said Friday that he doesn’t believe the fees have been problematic in Casper.
“Most requests have been completed within an hour so we haven’t had to access a lot of fees,” he said. “It hasn’t been much of an issue.”