In races across the state last year, government transparency was one of the hot topics. Candidates for Wyoming’s statewide offices generally pledged to voters that they would make spending records and other data more accessible to the public.
You might have excused voters for being a little skeptical, as promises made on the campaign trail tend to fall by the wayside once the election is over.
But here we are, in early 2019, and the Wyoming Legislature and new State Auditor Kristi Racines have already taken great strides toward making our government more open and transparent.
For her part, Racines wasted little time in following through on a pledge she’d made to detail the state government’s expenditures. In mid-February — only about five weeks after taking office — Racines compiled six years’ worth of state spending records and turned them over to a couple of groups who’d been seeking the data for years. It was a remarkable turnabout: Racines’ predecessor, former Auditor Cynthia Cloud of Cody, had balked at making the data from the state’s “checkbook” available to the public.
When Illinois-based transparency group OpenTheBooks.com and the Equality State Taxpayers Association originally requested the spending data, Cloud basically said it would be too hard to produce. Cloud eventually agreed to provide a copy of the expenditures, but charged the groups $7,820. Even then, the work proceeded at a snail’s pace; by the time Cloud left office this year, only about a third of the data had been produced.
In contrast, Racines not only dramatically sped up the process, she also refunded the $7,820, saying the records had cost less than $180 to produce. OpenTheBooks.com founder and CEO Adam Andrzejewski gushed that Racines had “ushered in a new era in state government.” Kevin Lewis, the vice president of the Equality State Taxpayers Association, similarly declared Racines to be “a blast of fresh air” for folks who’ve grown jaded and cynical about government.
Certainly, the sequence of events could give rise to cynicism — for instance, how is it possible that Cloud’s administration was unable to do something in years that took Racines only weeks? That’s left to conjecture. The more important takeaway is the dramatic turnaround, and Racines deserves kudos for her quick action.
We’re looking forward to seeing what other initiatives she and Gov. Mark Gordon roll out through a working group they’ve created to specifically promote transparency. It has also been encouraging to see one of Gordon’s rivals from last year’s election, Foster Friess, make open government a priority for his advocacy efforts.
And it’s not just the executive office doing good work, either: State lawmakers’ accomplishments in the recently concluded session included overwhelmingly passing a bill that strengthens Wyoming’s public records act.
Assuming Gordon signs the legislation, it will require Wyoming’s various branches of government — from the governor’s office to conservation districts — to turn over public records within 30 days of when they’re requested, unless there’s a good reason for a delay.
Further, if a government official denies a request for a record, citizens and organizations will now have another option for fighting that decision. Under current law, the only way to get that record is to challenge the government in court, which, with lawyers involved, can be an expensive process.
Under the newly passed Senate File 57, however, people will also have the option of taking their case to a state ombudsman. He or she will have the power to order agencies to turn over records, hopefully helping to settle disputes more quickly and effectively. The ombudsman can also direct a government agency to speed things up if it’s taking too long to process a request; for instance, if the position had been in place during auditor Cloud’s time in office, we suspect those spending records would have been turned over some time ago.
While we’re thrilled to see public records becoming more public, it’s even more encouraging to see Wyoming officials working together toward transparency; although documents, spreadsheets, emails and other data are all useful tools for tracking government, nothing is a substitute for public servants who are candid and open.