One of the items on our open government wish list has been an easier way to listen in on and participate in the interim meetings that state lawmakers hold around Wyoming between their sessions in Cheyenne.
During the recent legislative session, it briefly looked as though a part of our wish would come true.
House Bill 276 would have required audio recordings of interim committee meetings to be posted online within one month. Staffers with the state’s Legislative Service Office already record all of the committee meetings — and the recordings are already public records. The change would have been as simple as posting the audio online for easier access instead of making them only available by request.
“It’s just for what would normally be public information,” explained Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, a supporter of the bill, during a Feb. 23 debate on the legislation. “We’re going to make that publicly available for those of our constituents who maybe can’t make it to each and every interim meeting that we have throughout this state.”
That seems like common sense to us and, apparently, to just about everyone in the state House. Representatives passed HB 276 on a unanimous 58-0 vote in early February.
The Senate initially seemed supportive, too, approving the bill on a 17-13 vote on its first reading. But when a third and final vote on the bill rolled around a few days later, that total flipped: HB 276 failed on a 13-17 vote Feb. 27. Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, were among the bill’s opponents; Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, who represents the Powell area, supported it.
One of the sticking points for lawmakers had been a provision that basically said whatever the staffers’ microphones picked up during a committee meeting was a public record.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie — who also voted no on the bill — expressed concern about confidential discussions between lawmakers and LSO staff being caught on tape.
“Be careful what you say in a meeting, I guess,” offered Sen. Stephen Pappas, R-Cheyenne, who supported HB 276.
That seems like sage advice in general: Lawmakers shouldn’t be discussing truly confidential information or worrying about being overheard by the public at a public meeting.
More broadly, it’s disappointing that some state lawmakers appeared more interested in protecting against the off chance that they get caught saying something they shouldn’t than making a concrete step toward making government more transparent and accessible to the public.
We would continue to encourage lawmakers to find ways to make their records and meetings as open as possible.
At Saturday’s Park County Republican Party meeting, Larry French of Powell asked if lawmakers could make it possible for citizens to attend some of their committee meetings by video conference “rather than us driving to Cheyenne or Gillette or someplace to attend one of those meetings and see how it’s going … and if not, why not?”
To our great appreciation, Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, responded that he intends to ask the Legislature’s leaders the same thing.
“I’m going to have to get in front of Management Council and ask that very question, because there’s a lot of people in the northwest corner and the southwest corner and the northeast corner of the state that find it difficult to drive to Casper for a four-hour meeting when you could click on to [it] on your phone or on your computer and sit and listen to it and be able to submit, in writing, the questions that you’d like to have asked,” Northrup said. “So there has to be a better way to start using some of the technology that’s out there.”
We couldn’t agree more.
We understand that lawmakers prefer to conduct their meetings in person, as there’s no substitute for actually being in a room with someone. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone who can’t physically attend has to be excluded.
Hopefully — during the upcoming interim committee meetings that senators aren’t so sure they want posted online — lawmakers can work toward that goal.