Rod Miller: The Wyoming Public Records Act At Work

Columnist Rod Miller writes, "It's a disturbing video. Graphic, violent and a man dies in it. But the public has every right to see it. I'm referring to the deputy’s body cam video of a fatal confrontation that Laramie County Sheriff Brian Kozak recently released." 

RM
Rod Miller

October 29, 20234 min read

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It's a disturbing video. Graphic, violent and a man dies in it. But the public has every right to see it.

I'm referring to the deputy’s body cam video of a fatal confrontation that Laramie County Sheriff Brian Kozak recently released. 

The gunfight occurred last Halloween in Cheyenne, and part of Sheriff Kozak’s motivation in releasing it was to show his office’s duty of care in waiting until all the costumed trick-or-treaters were off the street before a high-risk warrant was served that resulted in the violence. 

That’s prudent police work.

Another reason Kozak had for releasing the video is his belief that the public has a right to know how their law enforcement employees operate, that taxpayers deserve transparency in government. And, to my knowledge, the Sheriff released the recording voluntarily without being constrained to do so. He did it to fulfill a campaign promise of transparency.

That’s just good government.

Kozak’s brand of willingness to allow government to function in broad daylight is refreshing at a time when public agencies are all too willing to keep secrets from us. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll repeat myself – citizens should always know more about their government than government knows about them.

The Wyoming Public Records Act was passed into law to do precisely that. The WPRA is pretty familiar to lawyers and journalists, but it should be equally familiar to the average citizen and should be an essential tool in their good citizenship toolbox.

More importantly, the WPRA should be tattooed inside the brain of every public employee and bureaucratic functionary. Transparency, not secrecy, should be the default reaction of anyone who is paid by the public.

I was gratified to learn that the WPRA was employed by a citizens’ organization in the ongoing kerfluffle over construction of a new LDS temple in Cody. This group, opposed to the hundred-foot-plus lighted steeple in their neighborhood, filed a formal request for records under WPRA. 

They wanted to pin down the local planning and zoning board to make sure that the church’s permit was being reviewed on its legal rather than religious merits.

Local government drug its feet for months, but finally produced the public records requested. Some of the correspondence released made for interesting reading, and it's obvious why the public offices involved wanted to spare themselves the embarrassment.

The temple issue is in the courts now, but at least public information is no longer being rat-holed by nervous bureaucrats. Disclaimer: I don’t have a dog in the fight over the steeple, but I do care very deeply about government transparency and the strict separation of church and state.

There are a few other instances of the WPRA playing out in controversies involving government secrecy here in the Big Empty. As time goes by, and more and more citizens learn about their right to know what government is doing, the cutting edge of the WPRA should become sharpened with use.

Citizens of Wyoming will learn to use this tool to pry from their government things that government just doesn’t want them to know, for whatever reason.

Fewer and fewer government entities will feel justified in keeping secrets from their employers. That is my hope.

So, kudos to Laramie County Sheriff Brian Kozak for his dedication to transparency.

I’ll close with this thought. Thomas Jefferson said often, while he was establishing the University of Virginia, that “knowledge is power." The first words of the Wyoming Constitution are, “All power is inherent in the people”. Knowledge belongs to the people, so let the people know!

Rod Miller can be reached at: rodsmillerwyo@yahoo.com

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist