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Editorial board: Don't add hurdles for public information

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Cole Creek Fire

A helicopter flies over devastation from the Cole Creek Fire in rural Evansville. 

It’s not as easy as it should be for the public to review public records. Public records are often documents generated through the daily grind of government whose operations are funded with public money, and therefore, the public owns the documents.

Emails generated by public employees, for example, are public records under the Wyoming Public Records Act, W.S. § 16-4-201 et seq., and are subject to public disclosure.

If you, as a member of the public, wish to see a record generated by your government, you may request to see it and you will be allowed to view the document. This is how we the people can see and understand what the government is doing and how it is operated.

For example, a citizen may be interested in the minutes of a zoning meeting where critical road access to their property was discussed, or subsequent emails of a government employee discussing that critical access. These may be of great interest. A citizen may see the documents because they are covered by the Wyoming Public Records Act.

But recently state and local governments have begun charging for the staff time it takes to find documents requested. This decision to charge came after some very large blanket public records requests from former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. So state agencies now have policies that allow them to charge for retrieval and redacting public documents.

This recent rule — under which Wyoming state government agencies will charge members of the public for time spent responding to requests to look at electronic records, like emails – represents a step backward for transparency and public access in the state. These documents belong to the public. The agencies are merely custodians.

A recent request by the Casper Star-Tribune to see emails generated by the city’s fire chief cost the newspaper hundreds of dollars. For a news organization with a budget for that kind of spending, of course, that’s not an obstacle. But that cost could be a real deterrent for an individual without the newspaper’s resources.

People should be able to know what their leaders are doing, from how public money is spent to how government works. This rule, which allows state agencies to charge for the staff time needed to collect, copy and provide official email or other documents in electronic formats once the total passes $180, would have a chilling effect on that. Fees would start at $15.50 an hour and go up to $40 an hour. That financial burden may simply be too onerous for the average person.

The Wyoming Supreme Court should take that into account as it weighs the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s appeal in a public records case. The Cheyenne newspaper, which is fighting public records fees from Laramie County School District 1, points out several concerns about the district’s decision to charge $110 for emails related to school board issues. It contends that if the district’s interpretation is upheld, government agencies could make members of the public pay for an attorney to look over public records before they were released. That interpretation could also lead to disparities in charges for electronic and hard-copy formats or lead to a higher cost depending on the skill level of the employee assigned to gather the documents.

Open records are important in a democratic system, and public access to them is paramount. The last thing the state should do is set up obstacles for people who want to participate.

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