CHEYENNE – Outlining his vision for Wyoming in a news conference hours after being elected governor, Gov. Mark Gordon laid out a number of priorities for his first year in office, including elevating a culture of openness in state government and building a strong relationship with the press.
On Friday, Gordon took a step in doing that, hosting an on-record lunch in the governor’s residence featuring reporters and representatives from several statewide media outlets – including the Star-Tribune – to ask what his administration could do to improve transparency over his first four years in office.
In a more than hour-long lunch over sandwiches, potato salad and angel food cake, Gordon – joined by several top members of his policy staff – listened as much as they spoke, taking time to hear concerns about access and public records, field suggestions on how the administration could improve its practices, and answer questions about the transparency efforts he and state auditor Kristi Racines had been pushing in their first months in office, including his developing vision for the roll-out of a recently-passed public records law that takes effect July 1.
“When I announced a year ago yesterday that I was going to run for governor, I knew at the time that there wouldn’t be a pause until after session was over, so we just ran as hard as we could all the way through,” said Gordon. “Now, we’re thinking about the future and things we want to get accomplished, and I’d love to think more broadly about questions you might have and things we might want to be focused on.”
Other outlets to attend included the Star Valley Independent (represented by publisher Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton), the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Wyoming Public Radio, WyoFile, KTWO Television, KGWN Television and The Associated Press.
Though the days of closed-door legislative meetings and piecing together articles exclusively from leaks – as longtime statehouse reporter Joan Barron once was resigned to do in her coverage of the Legislature – are over, Wyoming has numerous issues with transparency, a fact attested to by several reporters in the meeting.
Some had concerns with the consistency with which the state’s public records law is applied. Others shared concerns that the application of the law was somewhat arbitrary, based on the whims of individual agencies. Some media members’ concerns were less technical, and concerned a greater level of access to members of the executive branch and the possibility of increasing the number of press conferences hosted by the governor, or expanding the state’s live streaming of legislative hearings and meetings.
Out of those anecdotes, however, came ideas to benefit not just the media’s ability to do its job, but to increase transparency and engagement for the entire public.
Jim Angell, a longtime Associated Press reporter who now splits his time between the Wyoming Press Association and online news startup Cowboy State Daily, broached the concept of increasing public awareness of open meetings law and public records legislation. Another idea to emerge was the prospect of creating a model similar to one used in New York state, where an independent body under the purview of the executive branch can review denied public records requests and issue advisory opinions citizens and governments can use in later records disputes — an idea Gordon seemed in favor of.
“I’m hopeful that in the long run, this will create a culture that will be filtered down through irrigation district boards and perhaps, over to school districts,” said Jim Wood, of Wyoming Newspapers, Inc.
However, the ambitions expressed in the meeting, said Gordon, would have to fit within the realities available within Wyoming’s expense-shy state government and would need careful consideration, noting instances in the past where for-profit groups would use the state’s public records law to – in effect – put the bureaucracy to work for their own gain.
At the close of the meeting, Gordon expressed he would be willing to have future meetings with the press to discuss his transparency initiatives.
His and Racines’ transparency working group meets from 10 a.m. to noon Monday in Cheyenne.