Cat Urbigkit: Government in Sunshine — Your Right to Know

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

“A popular government, without popular information, or the mean of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”—James Madison, 1822.

This is Sunshine Week, a week in which news organizations across the country highlight the importance of government transparency and celebrate the public’s right to know the workings of its government – a critical principle in democracy. The date of this celebration is no coincidence since Sunshine Week marks the week of Madison’s birth 271 years ago.

Your right to know is enshrined in federal and state “government in sunshine” laws that provide mechanisms to ensure that government is open, transparent, and accountable to its citizens. Sunshine laws provide for public oversight of governmental functions through provisions that provide for public attendance at governmental meetings as well as access to governmental records. These laws mandate that the public’s business is discussed and decided in public view. Here’s a quick guide to the primary federal and sunshine laws that apply in Wyoming.

FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), first enacted in 1966, applies to federal agencies and establishes a legal right of access to government records, provides a presumption of disclosure, and requires records to be released to any member of the public, unless one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions applies.

FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information.

“At its core, the FOIA fosters public trust: trust that those who are charged with faithfully executing the laws are in fact doing so with integrity and in the public’s interest,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the U.S. Justice Department in remarks earlier this week.

To learn more about FOIA, how to file a FOIA request for records, and to review recently released documents, visit www.foia.gov.

FOIA Reading Rooms

Many federal government agencies and departments have online FOIA reading rooms where certain records of public interest are already posted. For example, the Department of the Interior has a variety of FOIA libraries and reading rooms, which can be accessed here. And here’s the BLM FOIA Reading Room.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a FOIA reading room, appropriately called The Vault.

You can even file a request to see if the FBI has a record about you. It’s a little more complicated, and involves the Privacy Act, but the option exists.

The Central Intelligence Agency FOIA reading room offers a fascinating record of declassified intelligence information – everything from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to the animal used in spycraft.

Federal Sunshine

The federal Government in the Sunshine Act, passed by Congress in 1976, declared it to be the policy of Congress that federal agency proceedings be open to the public except in limited circumstances, and required that agencies provide public notice of meetings.

The act applies only to federal agencies headed by collegial bodies (boards, councils, and commissions) whose members are presidentially appointed and to any subdivision of such an agency authorized to act on its behalf. Passage of this act at the federal level gave rise to similar laws at the state level across the country.

Wyoming’s Open Meetings

The Wyoming Open Meetings law (16-4-401) declares, “The agencies of Wyoming exist to conduct public business. Certain deliberations and actions shall be taken openly as provided in this act.”

The law states: “All meetings of the governing body of an agency are public meetings, open to the public at all times, except as otherwise provided. No action of a governing body of an agency shall be taken except during a public meeting following notice of the meeting in accordance with this act. Action taken at a meeting not in conformity with this act is null and void and not merely voidable.”

The law provides that a member of the public “is not required as a condition of attendance at any meeting to register his name, to supply information, to complete a questionnaire, or fulfill any other condition precedent to his attendance. A person seeking recognition at the meeting may be required to give his name and affiliation.”

The law provides for exceptions to open meetings. These executive sessions are not open to the public, and may be held to discuss: matters posing a threat to the security of public or private property, or a threat to the public’s right of access; to deliberate on personnel matters or litigation; matters of national security; examinations by a licensing agency; determinations of terms, parole or release of an individual from a correctional or penal institution; when considering real estate deals; accepting confidential donations or bequests; information classified as confidential by law; employment negotiations; disciplinary actions involving students, and; safety and security planning that, if disclosed, would pose a threat to the safety of life or property.

Wyoming’s Public Records

The Wyoming Public Records Act (16-4-201) declares, “All public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, during business hours of the state entity or political subdivision.” This statute applies to governmental entities in Wyoming including state agencies and political subdivisions such as county, city, town, school district and special districts.

The act defines public records as “any information in a physical form created, accepted, or obtained by a governmental entity in furtherance of its official function and transaction of public business which is not privileged or confidential by law.” The law also includes a variety of exemptions and sets out a 30-day general timeline for agency response to requests, as well as determines when fees may be applicable.

A key legal decision on public records was issued by the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1983 in the case of Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Sheridan, in which the court noted the importance of “making the public’s business available to the public whenever that is possible.

The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business.

Furthermore, it is for government to remember that the written, viewing and broadcasting press are the eyes and ears of the people. The citizenry must be permitted to hear and see what public officers and their employees say and do whenever the imparting of this knowledge does not run contrary to the rights of those otherwise protected in a way that would result in disclosure having the effect of inflicting such irreparable harm as is recognized at law.”

The court ruled that if a record custodian declines to allow inspection of a record, “he must state specific public-policy reasons for the refusal. These reasons provide a basis for review in the event of court action. The custodian of the records must satisfy the court that the public policy presumption in favor of disclosure is outweighed by even more important public-policy considerations.”

“Whether harm to the public interest from inspection outweighs the public interest in inspection is a question of law,” according to the court. “The duty of the custodian is to specify reasons for nondisclosure and the court’s role is to decide whether the reasons asserted are sufficient.”

Ombudsman

In 2019, the Wyoming Legislature created a state public records ombudsman, a position that is appointed by the governor, to mediate complaints about public records requests submitted to state and local governments.

The ombudsman can determine whether good cause existed for an agency to not meet the 30-day response deadline to release documents, as well as address other complaints. Mediation through the ombudsman is an option to seeking District Court review of an agency determination but is not required. Learn more about the ombudsman.

For more:

Many Wyoming reporters are well versed in the nuance of the sunshine laws, thanks to groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. RCFP’s Open Government Guide provide a handy and detailed overview that any citizen can use to shine some sunshine on government.

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