Fighting for your right to know
March 16, 2023
Sunshine Week, per the Society of Professional Journalists, “is an enduring initiative to promote open government. Join us in the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. It’s your right to know.”
Over the years there have been plenty of opportunity to educate and remind boards and councils about open records and open meetings and the reasons for which they can and cannot recess into a closed executive session.
There were several opportunities when I first arrived in Worland, eight years ago. One was within the office of the Clerk of District Court. We found out that if someone asked that their name not be published they were just not giving us those records.
That is not their prerogative. If we request a copy of all divorces granted within a timeframe that is public record. They don’t have discretion on which ones to give us and which ones not to give us.
The parties in question wanting their names withheld may come to us at the newspaper and make a request, but for government offices in charge of public records, they cannot grant such a request.
Once this was explained we have had no issues. Now the clerks in the office direct people to contact us about requests to not have certain information published.
If they withhold information from the media, it is the same as withholding from you the citizen if you made a request. Information is public no matter who is asking.
Another example here in Washakie County was at the Municipal Court level where juvenile names were being redacted from the monthly court report.
Juvenile names of defendants when in municipal or circuit court are public record. Only if a case is assigned to juvenile court are they not public. Again it is not at the discretion of the clerk or the judge to make that decision.
Again, education into the law brought forth the information we were seeking.
We also had to work with the city council early on in my tenure here to ensure that a vote on a new council member was made public. They wanted a secret ballot but we worked with them to help them understand the importance of an open and public vote.
For the most part in my career I have been able to handle public information issues that arise through education but there have been a few times a letter from an attorney has also proven beneficial.
Other newspapers across the state have not been as fortunate and their legal fights have proven to be beneficial to other newspapers and to you the public in fighting for your right to know. Currently the Newcastle Newsletter Journal is involved in a suit regarding secret ballots by the Weston County Commissioners in appointing a legislator. They have also included in the lawsuit the fact that the commissioners were conducting the public’s business via text messaging.
According to a news story in the Newsletter Journal, their attorney, Bruce Moats, stated, “Wyoming Statute 16-4-403(d) addresses the use of text messaging as a form of communication for boards. It states that ‘no meeting shall be conducted by electronic means or any other form of communication that does not permit the public to hear, read or otherwise discern meeting discussions contemporaneously. Communications outside a meeting, including, but not limited to, sequential communications among members of an agency, shall not be used to circumvent the purposes of this act.’ First, text messages are certainly sequential communications, so the commissioners were using the messages to conduct business hidden from the public, which circumvents the purpose of the Act.”
In educating government agencies and government boards the main thing I tell them is you are dealing with public money, you are dealing with issues that impact the public and thus the public has a right to know.
Regarding closed, executive sessions, there are exceptions noted in state statute and the biggest issue usually comes regarding personnel.
Boards need to remember that the personnel means dealing with a specific employee. If a board is discussing general issues such as overall raises, insurance, benefits, sick leave, etc. for all employees, then that is not an exception from the public meeting law.
The most important thing government agencies and boards need to remember is that when conducting, discussing or deciding on business regarding the public and the public’s money, everything should be done in public.
One thing COVID brought us is the ability to have more people involved through Zoom meetings and of all the boards in Washakie County that used the technology, only one, the Ten Sleep Town Council, still provides a Zoom link for remote participation.