Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ignorance Is Not Bliss: Lament for HB120 & HB121

It is sad that the Wyoming Senate killed two bills intended to assure public access to the documents and meeting  that carry out the public’s business. .

Sadder still are attitudes expressed by senators during debate on the two measures:
House Bill 120 – Public Meetings would have required a 12-hour notice for non-emergency meetings and would have required that minutes of executive sessions be kept not just in writing, but by audio recording. HB121 – Public Documents would have required officials to produce requested documents – or explain when they would be produced – in seven business days. People could not be charged to view existing documents. They could be charged for newly compiled documents.

Open meetings statutes list 11 reasons to close meetings to the public, generally relating to personnel, litigation, legally confidential information and real estate negotiations. (Find the complete list in Wyoming Statutes 16-4-405.)

According to some legislators:

·         The convenience and comfort of elected officials carry more weight than public access.
·         When we elect officials, we should trust them to give us information when they think we should know something. If we want to challenge their actions or judgment (challenges based, presumably, on a hunch), we can wait four years for the next election .  
·         Members of boards and commissions with small jurisdictions (e.g., Weed and Pest Districts) cannot be asked to understand and comply with laws governing open records and open meetings.
·         Nor can we ask boards and commissions of any jurisdiction to manage public documents so they are easy to retrieve for public view – for instance, keeping confidential messages in a separate file. This constitutes an “unfunded mandate.”
·         Elected officials cannot trust a judge to determine what parts of executive committee minutes – if any – should be disclosed.
·         Even less can board and commission members trust each other.  It was suggested that, given the opportunity, officials would mine public documents and meeting minutes for sensational, embarrassing ammunition to use against each other.
·         The beauty of current law is that elected officials can decide how complete or sketchy their written executive session minutes will be. If you record something, inevitably it will be leaked or stolen. Elected officials themselves may leak information from executive sessions, but that unofficial and unreliable version is okay. (Tip to the folks who keep executive session minutes: do not write or store your documents electronically. Dust off your Smith-Corona, folks.) 
·         Some senators attributed support for these measures from newspapers across Wyoming to a self-serving attempt to write sensational headlines and embarrass and harass public officials. What else?