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EDITORIAL: Keep demanding transparency from your government

“Government transparency” is one of those feel-good buzzwords that everyone across the political spectrum agrees is a good thing.

After all, whoever heard of a city councilman, lawmaker or gubernatorial candidate running on a platform of secret plans and confidential documents?

The reason for that is simple: Our government is intended to be, as President Abraham Lincoln put it more than 150 years ago, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In a democracy, citizens need easy access to information to understand what their government is (or is not) doing with their tax dollars. Open meetings and public records are particularly crucial for taxpayers as they decide how to vote at the ballot box.

Transparency is more than a buzzword; sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also critical.

Starting Saturday, various media outlets, government officials, nonprofit organizations and citizens will celebrate Sunshine Week, an annual event intended “to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

One of Sunshine Week organizers’ catchphrases is “Open government is good government.” That may be an overly sunny take on transparency — after all, you can be completely open about misspending taxpayer money on frivolous projects — but there’s no denying that nothing good comes from a closed government. Secrecy breeds distrust of even the best decisions.

Wyoming law allows public boards and commissions to hold some of their discussions in private executive sessions, but prohibits them from voting or making decisions in those closed-door sessions.

Our state is fortunate to have elected officials and government agencies that generally are open and forthright about what they’re up to. When Tribune staff ask city, county or state officials for documents or information, we typically get quick, helpful responses and find government meetings to be open.

We’re also thrilled that the Wyoming Legislature appears to be taking a step toward greater transparency: Lawmakers have overwhelmingly supported a bill that would make it much easier to obtain audio recordings of the many interim committee meetings they hold around the state between sessions.

Those meetings are already being recorded, and the public can request copies. However, before the files can be released to the public, legislative staff must review the audio and make sure that no confidential conversations between staff and lawmakers were captured.

That process can be a pain in the neck for both the Legislative Service Office (LSO) and citizens. For example, in January, the Tribune requested audio from a committee meeting in which lawmakers discussed “Taxation Complexities and Related Matters Pertaining to Park County.” Nothing ever came of that request to the LSO.

House Bill 192 is poised to simplify things. It effectively says that any confidential crosstalk captured on a committee recording is fair game, enabling the LSO to start posting the audio on the Legislature’s website. (Separately, staff are also going to experiment with live streaming committee meetings online.)

The changes should make it much easier for citizens to track their lawmakers and legislation. For most, it’s impractical to travel to a committee meeting halfway across the state, especially when you might only be interested in one small portion of the meeting.

With HB 192 passing the House and Senate by nearly unanimous votes, it appears that the committee discussions will soon just be a couple of clicks away.

It’s a great prelude to Sunshine Week in Wyoming.

Certainly, there is still plenty of room for improvement in transparency here: Local elected officials have too many private pre- and post-meeting deliberations, local judges put exceedingly high levels of secrecy on cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct, government attorneys are overly protective of personnel information and the list could go on.

But our state’s and nation’s commitment to transparency is generally one we should celebrate. Consider how many times our government gives up documents or other information showing how badly they’ve messed up.

In one sense, it’s remarkable: In how many countries would you not only expect, but demand your government to preserve and turn over its own damning emails, for instance?

In another sense, however, openness is simply an expectation in this country. It’s up to you to ensure that continues. As we celebrate Sunshine Week and enter the 2018 elections, we hope you’ll demand accountability and transparency at all levels of government.

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