One rant about government keeping secrets from citizens deserves another. After all, the people’s knowledge about what our public employees are doing in our name is the cornerstone of good governance.
And it's the best vaccine against incompetence and tyranny.
When the Wyoming Department of Education was sued recently over their planning of a private political event using public funds, then-Superintendent Brian Schroeder and his inner circle in the Department dug in their heels and resisted coughing up internal communications related to the event.
Not only did their secrecy look sketchy as hell on its face, their reluctance to divulge information clearly held by a public agency violated the Wyoming Public Records Act (WPRA). It took an order from a District Court judge to pry the requested records from their sneaky hands.
A quick review of the released material gives the reader a good idea why Schroeder and his acolytes didn’t want their communication to see the light of day. They are portrayed as nincompoops by their own words.
Government too often resembles an iceberg, and the visible part is dwarfed by the hidden. It is only when we citizens are allowed to see the entirety that we can understand what our public agencies are really up to.
That is the purpose behind the WPRA, but that wasn’t enough to convince the Dept. of Education to hand over their public records. It took a court order to get it done when bureaucrats thumbed their noses at the statute and the Legislature’s intent.
I’ll go out on a limb and claim that the WPRA, while a noble instrument, needs some work.
It lacks teeth. A violation of WPRA results in little more than a slap on the wrist. And for a government department hell bent on hiding its inner workings from a curious public, that is a small price to pay.
And its squishy and cumbersome, to boot. Each public entity in Wyoming has an individual responsible for responding to requests for public records. I worked in government long enough to know that chores like this are often given to someone pretty low on the totem pole. It's an assignment about as appealing as taking out the trash or counting pencils.
Sure, WPRA provides for a Public Records Ombudsman, but that position is only called on to resolve disputes over requests. The ombudsman is NOT a clearinghouse or a single-point-of-contact for citizens asking for records. And they should be exactly that.
The Wyoming Legislature would be wise to take another look at the WPRA, and streamline and strengthen it. If it's not doing the job intended, it needs to be fixed. It should never be up to a District Court judge to do the job WPRA was enacted to do.
Here’s a modest proposal. In a digital age like ours, there may be a deus ex machina available to us. Simply digitize all public records and put the whole shebang onto a searchable database easily accessed by all Wyoming citizens.
And if some information is too sensitive for the public’s eyes to include on the database, there’d better be a compelling and convincing reason why, clearly stated.
The bottom line is this: if the citizens of Wyoming want to know what their government is doing, and the Legislature wants that to happen, then it should happen. No ifs, ands or buts.
If we Wyomingites are gonna eat the sausage, we deserve to know exactly how it is made. As it says in the Gospel of John, and is chiseled above the door to CIA headquarters – “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”