Sunday, March 11, 2012

The public's right to know. But not right now.

On the same day the Wyoming House gave final approval to two bills that will provide more access to public documents and meetings for Wyoming citizens, the representatives took their business behind closed doors. In an unusual move, everyone present in the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, left the House floor and crowded into a meeting room in the Capitol for one-half hour to discuss the pros and cons of the conference report on Senate File 57 and decide how they would vote.

Once they adjourned their private meeting on March 8 and returned to the House floor, the chairman of the House Education Committee called for a vote before anyone else had a chance to speak, ensuring no discussion or explanation for the public of what their representatives were thinking.  The vote was 38-18 (with four members excused) to approve the final compromise version of the bill.

Floor discussions of conference committee reports are very informative for the public to understand the proposal and to hear questions, concerns and responses. The debate is recorded so people can listen to it on their computers later. But the House wanted none of that on this momentous and controversial bill, which will affect every public school and school district and student in Wyoming for decades to come. The Wyoming Accountability in Education Act lays out a framework of data-gathering to track the achievement, growth and readiness for every student and school in the state.   

The stage was set by a rancorous conference committee meeting of three senators and three representatives. They worked out a compromise on the Senate and House versions of Senate File 57 – Education Accountability. Legislators, an advisory group of educators, legislative staff and an excellent consultant had labored a year on the accountability plan, but there remained differences of opinion on the manner of testing that should be used.

Those differences came out in the bills approved separately by the House and Senate, and they emerged in the conference committee meeting. One member, a freshman senator, was particularly aggressive, even abrasive, and seemed to focus on scoring points for the Senate. At the end of six hours of negotiation, all six seemed satisfied with the compromise, and all six signed the report.

Perhaps “buyer’s remorse” set in for the House conference committee members, as they reviewed the tough negotiations and their concessions. Something prompted the call for a secret House meeting to discuss the deal.

Twenty-four hours before adjournment of the 2012 legislative session, the House could have rejected the compromise report and tried for a new conference committee meeting and a new compromise and a new vote in the House and Senate on the compromise. The stakes were high. Was there enough time for another conference committee? Would rejection of the report kill the proposal? This is drama and brinksmanship in the State Capitol, for those who follow such things.

What to do, what to do...  It’s fine if House members want to close discussions of political strategizing versus the Senate – but not when they are weighing the final form of an extensive accountability system for Wyoming school children. When House leadership called everyone to caucus in Room 302, there was no noticeable protest. They returned to their seats 30 minutes later and the conference report was moved and the final vote was called immediately.

It was an unfortunate disregard for the people of Wyoming and their ability to follow public business conducted in their name.

During debate on the public documents bill (Senate File 25) and the open meetings bill (SF27), someone always spoke about the difficulty of insisting on “sunshine” laws for other governmental entities while the Legislature exempted itself from those same laws. However, when the topic comes up, many legislators will cite their need to work freely without public scrutiny and public record. The same reason is given for resisting universal roll-call votes.

The Wyoming Legislature has exempted itself from public document and open meeting laws. To their credit, legislators have voluntarily done a pretty good job to give public notice for meetings and to make legislative documents available to the public.

Changes made by the 2012 Legislature to our public documents and open meetings laws were good ones. They better define public meetings, require notice for special meetings and require certain responses to document requests.

But the Legislature itself remains exempt. The events of March 8 are a reminder that making openness in government voluntary is problematic, and it can leave the public right out of public affairs.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Leave Your Gun and Your Rude Behavior Outside

Decorum n. 1. Propriety and good taste in behavior, dress, etc. 2. An act or requirement of polite behavior (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed.)

The rough and tumble world of advocacy elsewhere burst onto the Wyoming legislative scene last winter. In preparing for the 2012 session, lawmakers are instituting rules they hope will preserve our friendly open citizen Legislature but regulate some of the most objectionable behavior.

Legislator and public behavior could get rowdy in territorial and early statehood days, but in recent decades a generally accepted courtesy and deference has been the norm. Legislators in Wyoming are unused to intimidation outside the caucus meetings,and the deliberative and mannered world of the Wyoming State House was disrupted in 2011. Some legislators, caught off guard, succumbed to the aggressive methods.  

Legislators have their own rules for decorum. Now for the 2012 session, we have rules to guide decorous behavior by the public in the galleries, committee rooms and lobbies of the State Capitol. Some rules are common sense and courtesy and only the most obnoxious behavior will be affected. Others could impinge on normal, reasonable behavior, so we rely on the good judgment of the enforcers.

For Instance:

One of the most objectionable behaviors of 2011was the use of still and video cameras -- flourished in committee meetings, positioned to obstruct traffic and extended over the gallery glass to record documents on legislators’ desks. No one can hold recording equipment (or anything else) over the glass barrier in the gallery, and otherwise recording is allowed if it is not obstructive or disruptive. People who want to record committee meetings should check first with the chairman.

People in the galleries must be quiet and still and refrain from trying to communicate “visually or audibly” with anyone on the Senate or House floor. This is in response to the dramatic gesticulating in the galleries last session, which was distracting to legislators and also to the clerks as they counted heads for the “division” votes.

In the lobbies, demonstrations, signs, banners, placards and other display materials are prohibited. “Individuals in the lobby may not react to debate or voting on the floor in any way to signal approval or disapproval of floor action.” Now, that’s a tough one. A raised eyebrow, smile or discreet fist bump are okay, I’m sure. But when will the door man (they are always men) intervene?

I hope legislators remember they always can exert their own will on people who get too pushy. They can declare their position and then stand by it at election time. We cannot insulate them from public importuning or the implied threat of “we’re watching you, so be careful.” Committee chairmen have always been able to enforce their own rules to preserve decorum.

On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to say Wyoming folks know rude behavior when they see it and we don’t have to put up with it. The Legislative Service Office reviewed rules of other legislative bodies, and the Wyoming rules of decorum represent a middle ground, according to Sen. Tony Ross.

I guess these rules will give the House and Senate staff the authority to squelch the most disruptive behavior. We rely on the judgment of staff to know when behavior crosses that line from proper comment to prohibited disruption and contumely.