Editorial:

Toughening of public records act would be a positive step

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We’re pleased to see Wyoming lawmakers taking a preliminary step toward strengthening the state’s public records act.

Late last month, the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee endorsed a bill that would give government officials a deadline for providing public records: They’d need to turn over the records within 17 days of when they’re requested.

Currently, there’s no deadline and, while some exceptional requests may take longer to fulfill, we think that sounds more than reasonable as a general rule.

We already find local and state agencies to, on the whole, be helpful and prompt in our requests for public records. Ask for a copy of a document submitted at a Park County Commission meeting or a City of Powell liquor license application, for instance, and you’ll likely get it within minutes.

However, statutes aren’t written with the true public servants in mind, but for those officials who might be tempted to take their sweet time or deliberately slow-walk a request. It’s not a theoretical concern, either.

Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the government is required to give a boilerplate acknowledgment of a request within a month. However, there’s no deadline for turning over records. The Tribune has found that even a simple request can take a half-a-year and repeated prompting to get anything released.

There have been complaints at the state level, too.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit groups American Transparency and the Equality State Taxpayers Association paid the State Auditor’s Office nearly $8,000 to produce five years of state spending data. But close to four months later, the groups said they’d received only a fraction of the information they’d requested, WyoFile.com reported.

(Whether it was fair that the groups had to pay that fee for the public records is another question.)

Putting a definitive timeline on when requests must be answered should help give clarity to both elected officials and the public. And for most agencies, we suspect they’re already processing requests much faster than 17 days and would have no trouble with the change.

The draft legislation endorsed by the joint corporations committee does contain another provision that, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, could cause the bill to face opposition when the Legislature convenes in January.

The draft would make it a felony for a governmental official to “knowingly or intentionally” violate Wyoming’s Public Records Act (up from a misdemeanor), while negligently violating the law would become a misdemeanor offense.

The new felony would in some ways be symbolic: The maximum prison sentence would be one year and one day (just a single day stiffer than many high misdemeanors), with a misdemeanor-like maximum fine of $1,000.

However, some lawmakers balked at the changes. For instance, according to the Tribune Eagle, state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said it didn’t make sense to enhance the penalties if the end goal is an open relationship between the government and citizens.

“Rather than working with the agencies [to come up with the best process], we’re trying to come at it with a hammer — a very large hammer — and we’re bludgeoning the Public Records Act, quite frankly,” Nethercott said.

We share some of the unease about punishing negligence as a crime. It would seem more appropriate for an official’s careless mistake with public records be tried in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law.

However, knowing and intentional violations of our public records laws are a different story — imagine someone hiding records of inappropriate spending or destroying damning emails.

Whether anyone would ever be caught, prosecuted and convicted under the proposed law is anyone’s guess. But if someone was found to have intentionally committed such a crime against the public, it seems right that they be punished as a felon — barred from elected office and from participating in our electoral process as a voter.

Open government is that important.

Bob Bonnar, a lobbyist for the Powell Tribune and all the other members of the Wyoming Press Association, encouraged the committee to leave the felony punishments in the draft.

“[This bill] doesn’t identify specific problems in transparency in Wyoming. What it does is signal the Legislature’s intent to change the culture regarding transparency in Wyoming. And that’s a real strong statement to make,” Bonnar said, according to the Tribune Eagle. “The message needs to be sent loud and clear to custodians of public records in Wyoming that when a citizen wants to see a record, you should get on the hurry-up and get it to them as reasonably as possible.”

As Bonnar indicated, whatever the Legislature decides to do with the penalties, it’s the overall message they send that’s more important. And we hope that message is a strong endorsement of open, transparent government.

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