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Public records at Natrona County District Court

Kathy Cestnick, deputy clerk at the Natrona County Clerk of District Court office, helps a customer at the front desk in 2011. State lawmakers recently passed a law designed to make it easier to improve public records in Wyoming.

As the nation’s government watchdogs commemorate Sunshine Week – an annual nationwide celebration of citizens’ access to public information – the citizens of Wyoming, a state that has been labeled as one the least-transparent states in the nation, seem to be waking up to the dawning of a new era of access and accountability here in the Equality State.

First-year Gov. Mark Gordon says he plans to make improving transparency in state government a cornerstone of his policy agenda. State Auditor Kristi Racines, in a dramatic shift from her predecessor, Cynthia Cloud, released a trove of state financial data that had long been withheld by the state. In the Legislature, lawmakers recently passed public records legislation intended to bring more accountability to government agencies at all levels, from local water and sewer districts on up to the executive branch.

Wyoming still has a long way to go to match other states’ commitments to transparency, however. With an effective date of July 1, the flows of information in and out of state government are facilitated with a patchwork of spreadsheets, printouts and other organizational techniques to track public records requests that can vary widely from agency to agency, with no set protocol or system to track the status of those requests. In the Department of Administration and Information, for example, public records requests are tracked using a spreadsheet maintained by staffers in the office. At the University of Wyoming – which received more than 200 public records requests last year – and in the Secretary of State’s Office, records officers work with an informal system of tracking requests, which can entail everything from pointing members of the public to a state website or intensive looks into other records those agencies might maintain.

“Different agencies do things differently and really, they will continue to do so until more uniform advice comes out of the AG’s office,” said Tony Bennett, a senior business analyst with A&I.

“I think what’s lacking is some kind of uniform tracking mechanism that the different departments can use,” he added. “Right now, they don’t have that.”

A patchwork of public records systems

The main purpose of sunshine laws, said Wyoming media attorney Bruce Moats in a Monday afternoon forum at Laramie County Community College, is to defend the principles of self-governance that allow successful democracies to remain successful.

In a one-hour lecture sponsored by the Wyoming Society of Professional Journalists and LCCC student newspaper, Wingspan, Moats described access to public records as a practice essential to providing citizens a fundamental understanding of the operations of government, empowering their voices in the process by vesting them with the ability to practically engage in the systems dictating their everyday lives.

“If you don’t know what government is up to or what your representatives are doing, your ability to be a self-governor has very little meaning,” said Moats.

This year’s legislation – while a step in the right direction, based on conversations with agency officials and lawmakers – leaves state agencies with a wide swath of authority on how to respond to members of the public, perpetuating the existence of a network of diverse and differing protocols for handling public records between various state agencies.

Though the bill creates set time frames for when records requests need to be fulfilled and, if longer, sets protocols for how to work out mutual understandings on creating new deadlines, the legislation does not create a standardized system or a repository for those requests once they’re fulfilled, essentially leaving municipalities and state agencies a license to apply the law as needed.

Several state agencies expressed an appreciation for the level of flexibility allowed under the law, which many lawmakers considered to be something of a “baby step” to improve compliance and encourage best practices for transparency for smaller government entities, which may not have full-time records officers or a thorough understanding of state public records law.

“The bill necessitates a lot of what we already do – to work with every requester, and not in an adversarial kind of approach but rather coming together and figuring out what they need,” said Will Dinneen, the public information officer for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office.

There are gaps, however. Though each part of the bureaucracy is subject to Wyoming’s existing public records law and, under the new law, will be subject to a 30-day deadline to fulfill a request for records, no agency in state government – not even A&I, which maintains a transparency website with all the state’s financial records — keeps track of all the public information requests that come into the state.

The Department of Corrections — which currently employs three public records officers — handled roughly 140 requests in 2016, each of which had to be reviewed twice for privacy concerns, according to assistant director Steve Lindley. The University of Wyoming, which processes about 206 requests for records on average per year, according to a spokesperson, does not otherwise track those requests. The State Supreme Court handles its records requests on a case-by-case basis and, with no tracking system, has no specific numbers on how many records requests it handles per year, nor figures on its average response times, said court clerk Patricia Bennett, who handles the requests either herself or passes them along to administrative staff for review.

“We try to get those requests filled as quickly as possible,” she said.

This has been on the mind of officials at A&I, who have recently been reviewing uniform public records systems used in states like Utah, which maintains everything from financial disclosures to legislator email records in one, easy-to-use interface on a state website. However, lawmakers in Wyoming have not set aside money for such a system.

“There will be a role for expanding the transparency website as we go along based on what the governor has set as a priority for his administration,” Bennett said. “But right now, everyone is on a different system.”

“This will get a lot of attention in the near future,” he added.

One of the most successful examples of a public records system in the state is the one operated by the Department of Environmental Quality, which routinely receives hundreds of records requests every year from a mix of public and private entities. Several years ago, the department was essentially where other agencies in state government were — taking requests off of an email account and tracking them using a spreadsheet, said DEQ public information officer Keith Guille.

Guille thought there had to be a better way.

“I just got a letter and I didn’t know why I was receiving it,” he said. “I wondered if anyone was keeping track of these and whether or not they were being responded to.”

Using funding from its information technology budget, DEQ adopted an online interface called NextRequest, an ultra-modern public records management system founded by several former government employees that, today, is utilized by entities like the cities of New Orleans and San Diego. The interface – in place for more than a year now – allows the department to track numerous metrics on the status of records in one place, including how long a request has been outstanding and what the records request includes.

Though the department typically receives about 700 requests per year, Guille said the average length of turnaround for the department is somewhere around 10 days.

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“It wasn’t really costly when you think about IT today,” said Guille. “This was a pretty affordable system for what it could do for us.”

“We went forward with this mostly just because of the volume,” he added. “It made our agency a little uneasy, and we wanted to be sure these were getting responded to. It’s important.”

Fixing what’s broken

Under the existing system, members of the public and the media still have their records requests routinely denied for myriad reasons. A recent public records request from a Star-Tribune reporter for emails related to allegations that staff mocked special needs students in the Natrona County School District, for example, was denied on the grounds it would create an unwarranted invasion of privacy, according to an attorney letter dated March 8.

Without financial backing from the state for institutions to improve their record keeping, the public can be further kept in the dark. Another recent denial letter – this one to a Wyoming Public Radio reporter – from the Wyoming Supreme Court came over a request for court data related to juvenile offenses. Though the court had the records on file, they were under no obligation to compile those statistics under current state statutes. Instead, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Star-Tribune, the court pointed the reporter to the limited data already on the state’s website, stating that “limited funding, staff, and lack of uniformity in current data” precluded the court from providing any additional information beyond what was on the website.

Under the current law, if citizens are denied a record, they can ask for a written explanation of the denial, which includes the authority under which the record was denied and, if the reasons are unsatisfactory, citizens can take the government to court.

“That’s one of the most important things both for reporters and citizens I can think of – demanding that explanation,” Moats said in his lecture. “Why can’t the public know this information, and why can’t they know it in time? As a journalist and an attorney, that’s one of the most difficult questions for elected officials to be able to answer: ‘Why do you get to know it, and why can’t everybody else know it?’ So I urge members of the public to get that answer, to make them explain it, and then publicize that explanation.”

Lawmakers drafting the bill did recognize, however, that these disagreements can occur, and in the new legislation created an ombudsman position within the executive branch, or a designated public official for citizens to appeal to should their public records request be denied for any reason.

It is still unclear what the duties of the position will fully entail, however, and whether or not the creation of the position will be a good thing for transparency or just another bureaucratic hurdle in the appeal process.

“The ombudsman could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing,” said Moats. “It depends on how it’s implemented and how it’s put forward in there.”

The executive branch is still working that definition out for itself.

“The ombudsman position is an opportunity to advance transparency, which is very important to me,” Gov. Mark Gordon, who will need to appoint someone to the position by the time the law takes effect July 1, said in a statement. “I just signed this law into legislation last week, so it’s a little early to discuss specifics. The next steps are to develop the job description for the ombudsman, and determine the process between our office, state agencies and across Wyoming’s governmental entities.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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