Rod Miller: Government Secrets vs. The Wyoming Public Records Act

Columnist Rod Miller writes, "In a free society like ours, citizens should know more about government than government knows about us. Knowledge is power, right? When government keeps secrets from its citizens, it becomes a secret government."

Rod Miller

September 24, 20234 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

It should be axiomatic that, in a free society like ours, citizens should know more about government than government knows about us. Knowledge is power, right? When government keeps secrets from its citizens, it becomes a secret government.

An instructive read on the topic is Franz Kafka’s existential novel, “The Trial."

In this chilling dystopian tale, the protagonist finds himself charged with an unspecified crime by an anonymous government agency. He is told nothing about his accuser, or even where or when his trial is to be held.

He experiences an increasing and frightening sense of powerlessness as he realizes how little he knows about his government and how much it knows about him. For my money, “The Trial” should be an integral part of any civics curriculum, if civics is even being taught anymore.

We would all demand more government transparency if we took Kafka’s disturbing cautionary tale to heart.

What brought this to mind is several recent instances of citizens trying to pry secrets from governments stingy hands in the Cowboy State. While these attempts haven’t yet risen to prominence in the public eye like tourism idiocy in Yellowstone or wind farms, they should.

Two examples are the ongoing litigation over a former Superintendent of Public Instruction’s use of public money on a private political event and a Laramie watchdog’s effort to release to the public a settlement agreement between law enforcement and the family of a victim killed by a cop.

In the latter case, even the family of the victim is advocating for release of the settlement but government has dug in its heels. When that happens, citizens can only conclude that there is something in the document that government just doesn’t want us to know.

To be sure, there are valid reasons for government to keep secrets. We would certainly shoot ourselves in the foot if we publicly doxxed our spies operating in hostile nations or our battle plans should we find ourselves in a hot war. 

But those instances should be strict exceptions to the citizens’ need-to-know, not the general rule. Aside from that and at the risk of repeating myself, we should ALWAYS know more about our government than it knows about us.

To promote government transparency and to its credit, the Wyoming Legislature passed the Wyoming Public Records Act (WS 16-4-201-205) a few years ago. 

The law says, “All public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, during business hours of the public entity or political subdivision…” The WPRA applies to all state, county and municipal government.

The WPRA set up a procedure within government to disseminate public information to the public. It went so far as to establish a Public Records Ombudsman to facilitate citizen access to public information. 

But the two instances mentioned above, and more besides, argue that the system isn’t working. Government bureaucrats are still, despite WPRA and the legislature’s best intentions, tightly holding on to public information in its clenched fist.

People who are paid with public money are still keeping secrets from the public. That fact should make Kafka roll around in his grave and it should make every citizen pissed off.

As I see it, the Wyoming Legislature has two choices if they want government transparency to have any meaning at all 

First (and my preference) they can put some teeth into the law, knock some bureaucratic heads and MAKE the Wyoming Public Records act work. They can take seriously the public’s right to know what their government is up to and prove that the WPRA is more than window dressing and gum-flapping.

Or they can repeal the whole shebang, let our government keep secret anything that might be touchy or embarrassing should it see the light of day. By so doing, the fulcrum of knowledge and power would invest fully within the halls of government and we citizens would be left to believe it when some faceless official says, “I’m from government. I’m here to help you.”

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist