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Public records bill heads to the Legislature

By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — The efforts of state lawmakers and stakeholders in the past year to craft a new public records law has finally borne fruit.

But the inclusion of serious penalties for knowingly violating Wyoming’s public records laws could cause the bill to face headwinds in the 2019 Legislature.

A version of a bill drafted by the Public Records Working Group will head to the Legislature after the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee voted 8-4 on Tuesday to sponsor it. The proposed legislation would give state and local agencies a set timeline to follow when it comes to public records requests. Those groups would have seven days to respond to a request and another 10 days to produce the records.

While the members of the Corporations Committee agreed the state needed to improve the process to access public records, there were several sticking points that caused some on the committee to vote against the bill.

Some lawmakers were concerned about making it a felony for a member of a local or state governmental agency to knowingly or intentionally violate the public records law. The bill would make it a misdemeanor offense for someone to negligently violate the public records law.

The Corporations Committee voted to reduce the maximum sentence for any felony under the proposed law to one year and a day and a fee of $1,000, and any misdemeanor to a maximum of six months in jail and a $750 fine.

But the inclusion of that felony section was a bridge too far for some members of the committee.

“I’ve been all over the map as to whether we ought to get this issue out of the bill because it might be controversial enough to kill it,” Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think the bill is passable with a felony (provision) in it.”

Scott envisioned a scenario where the threat of felony and misdemeanor charges would keep people from signing up to be on smaller boards, like local cemetery boards.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said it didn’t make sense to include the felony aspect in the bill if the goal was to create an open relationship between government and citizens. When it came to special districts and other small boards that don’t have the resources or manpower of larger state agencies, using the hammer of a felony charge seemed to go way beyond the intent of the bill.

“Are there other ways to achieve transparency, which is really the goal? I think we’re looking at this from the wrong end,” Nethercott said. “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.”

The idea of removing the threat of a felony didn’t sit well with some members, who saw it as a way to ensure compliance from unwilling agencies that could intentionally violate the rules without fear of punishment.

“I do think that (the felony level) is a knowing and initial violation,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance. “You’re doing this for the purpose of obstructing transparency, in my opinion, and going well outside the bounds of your job. I’m not in favor of reducing that down to a misdemeanor.”

Bob Bonnar, associate publisher and editor of the News Letter Journal in Newcastle, spoke in favor of leaving penalties in. He compared the threshold of proving the felony charge of knowingly or intentionally violating the law as the same as the one to prove libel or slander in the journalism field.

Bonnar, who spoke on behalf of the Wyoming Press Association, also drew the comparison of keeping public documents from initially being released as the same as stealing public money.

While he said he wouldn’t plant his flag on the issue, Bonnar believed the lessening of penalties for knowingly breaking the public records law would weaken the impact the bill would have in changing the culture in Wyoming.

“(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. “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.”

Another issue members hoped could be cleared up during the next legislative session was a mechanism for reporting issues with document requests. The committee couldn’t land on the right solution for who should handle complaints about the process on the state and local level, however.

The original bill draft outlined a process where complaints would be sent to the state’s chief information officer, a position housed in the Wyoming Department of Enterprise Technology Services. While that might work for state agency complaints, members weren’t sure if that position should also handle complaints from local agencies and boards.