WORLAND, Wyo. - Wyoming local government organizations want to change the state's records law to exempt from public review documents that reflect the decision-making process of public entities, officials told a panel of state lawmakers on Friday.
The Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee took testimony in Worland from local government groups and the Wyoming Press Association. The committee is considering proposals to change the state's open records and public meetings laws following the defeat of two open government bills in this spring's legislative session.
Mark Harris of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities said his group and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association favor exempting records that show a government body's decision-making process. He says final documents such as proposed ordinances would still be public.
Harris told the committee that the local government groups "tried to come up with a balance between the public's right to know and participate in the process with the obligation of the entities to deliberate and formulate ideas and concepts that may turn into action."
Speaking after the meeting, Harris said that in drafting a proposed ordinance, a mayor might need to get candid assessments from a police chief or planning department director about the proposal's effect. He said they need to be able to communicate candidly, without fear that their words would be released to the public.
"You're balancing what does the public have the right to know and when against the deliberative process," Harris said after the meeting. "People elect elected officials to carry on certain things and to make certain decisions. With those decisions, you need to deliberate and consider the information."
Jim Angell of the press association countered that his group opposes blocking public access to the decision-making documents. The Associated Press is a member of the association.
"This creates an entirely new segment of documents exempted from the public," Angell said. "The governmental process doesn't begin and end with the decision-making body. It begins upstream."
D. Reed Eckhardt, head of the press association and editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper in Cheyenne, said after the meeting he hopes the process leads to more government openness for all people in the state.
"The public needs to understand where things are in the process," Eckhardt said. "Whether it's a wild idea of some city council member or whether it's a more reasoned, created draft of a document, it should never hurt him or her to get some sort of feedback about where we are in the process. And it's not fair to come all the way down to the end and say, 'here it is.' At that point it's too late to have any influence."
Harris said the government groups also propose changing state law to specify that emails or other communications received by a single member of a government body such as a city council or county commission wouldn't be considered public record. He said the law shouldn't treat such emails any differently than it does a telephone call that an elected official might receive from a constituent.
Angell said the press association maintains that letters or other written communications sent to elected officials should remain public information.
The press association and local government groups have been meeting recently to try to reach agreement over both the public records and open meetings issues. Representatives said they intend to meet again before addressing the committee at its next meeting, in August in Sundance.
Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Speaking after the meeting, he said he believes it's good that stakeholders on both sides of the issue talking to each other.
On the issue of whether state law should exempt the government agencies' decision-making documents from public review, Perkins said the question comes down to how far back in time a records request should be allowed to reach.
"No one's interested in going too far back, it becomes ridiculous," Perkins said. "But obviously, pre-decisional can also mean anything up to and including the point you made the decision. That's obviously too late in the process."