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CJ Baker

When Pandemic Ends, Remote Access To Meetings Should Continue

in Column/CJ Baker

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By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Many parts of life just haven’t been as good as usual in recent weeks. We have all made due and adapted, often in wonderful and unexpected ways, but virtual birthday parties and drive-by graduation celebrations can’t compete with the real thing.

However, COVID-19 has also had the unexpected effect of increasing transparency within our branches of government. In some ways, even as public life has been restricted and facilities closed, public meetings and hearings have become more open and accessible than ever before.

We’ve been thankful for all the efforts that public agencies have been making to ensure their discussions are as transparent as possible.

There have been technical challenges and mess-ups, but on the whole, we believe it’s been easier than ever for local residents to track what their elected representatives are up to.

For instance, while members of the public are always welcome at Park County Commission meetings, the gatherings tend to be particularly difficult for many residents to attend. The meetings take place during the middle of a workday (the first three Tuesdays of the month) and they tend to start in the morning and run into mid-afternoon. Few people can take that kind of time to keep up with their commissioners.

But since the public health orders began shutting down public life, the county has been streaming its meetings via Skype and left the recordings online for on-demand viewing. The potential benefits for the public are obvious.

Consider, for example, a recent commission discussion on whether to move forward with creating a plan for new walking and biking paths around the City of Powell. Under normal circumstances, a Powell resident wanting to hear the debate would have to leave work, drive to Cody in the middle of a Tuesday morning, catch the 10-minute conversation, then head back home. Unless you’re the world’s most passionate walking and biking advocate, that’s not going to be worth your time.

However, with meetings now being recorded and archived, anyone can simply pull up the county website at their convenience, cue up that section of the meeting and be done with it in about 10 minutes.

Similar examples are popping up around the state. For instance, the federal court system in Wyoming has long been difficult for the Tribune to track, because, say, covering a hearing for a local defendant means making a 12-plus-hour round trip to the courthouse in Cheyenne or sometimes a seven-hour round trip to Casper. For a half-hour hearing, the math just doesn’t add up. Amid the pandemic, however, federal and local courts are allowing media and members of the public to simply call in and listen. Suddenly, hearings that were basically inaccessible are just a call away.

Then there’s the Wyoming Legislature, which recently took the unprecedented step of hosting its special session almost entirely online — and made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to watch.

Andrew Graham, a reporter for WyoFile, said the conference committee meetings that were held during the two-day special session — where lawmakers hash out differences between versions of bills passed by the House and Senate — were the most transparent of the five sessions he’s covered over the past four years.

In a change from recent sessions, each conference meeting was noticed and then recorded, where the public could watch the debates live or at a later time. 

Certainly, all of this technology comes with costs in both time and money — and the demand for remote access to different government meetings is bound to vary from body to body. But there are strong indications that there is indeed a demand.

Consider the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, whose meetings typically draw just a handful of residents. After broadcasting and archiving their recent meetings on Facebook, the board’s April 28 meeting has drawn more than 800 views while a May 12 meeting had roughly 1,100 views. To be sure, Facebook’s view count is not an accurate representation of how many people are actually sitting down and watching an entire meeting — if a video auto plays in someone’s news feed for 3 or more seconds, that counts as a view — but it certainly shows a much wider audience than usual.

Of course, this is not to say that our local governments should give up their in-person meetings in favor of going remote. Nothing can fully replace face-to-face interaction, particularly when the goals include building relationships or resolving conflicts. But government officials should work to continue to make their meetings accessible online as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

As Graham put it on Twitter, “No one wants a virtual Legislature, but as things get back to normal I won’t forget that it was possible for the entire far-flung state to watch their Legislature deliberate.”

We hope our public officials — from lawmakers to commissioners and school board members — don’t forget that, either.

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New Tax On Lodging Coming To Wyoming In 2021

in Column/CJ Baker
State Capitol

By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Starting next year, Wyoming will begin assessing a new 5% tax on overnight stays at hotels, motels, RV parks, campgrounds, guest ranches, Airbnbs and other lodging facilities around the state.

The statewide lodging tax passed the Wyoming Legislature March 2 — surviving a narrow vote in the Senate — and was signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon on Friday.

Of the new tax, 3% will go to the state government to fund the Wyoming Office of Tourism, which promotes the state as a destination for visitors across the globe; the other 2% will stay in the county where it’s collected to boost local tourism. Counties will have the option to seek another 2% for local tourism efforts — such as the Park County Travel Council — for a maximum total lodging tax of 7% (with 3% going to the state and 4% to the county).

Claudia Wade, the travel council’s executive director, said the marketing and promotions that currently are and will be funded by lodging taxes are needed to draw tourists.

“I think tourism is important to this state given the situation with our oil and gas and it is a very strong second industry in Wyoming,” Wade said. “And we need to keep promoting Wyoming and Cody needs to keep promoting this East Entrance as well as all of the other things Park County has to offer.”

Park County voters have long imposed a 4% tax on lodging to fund the travel council’s marketing efforts. This November, they’ll be asked to keep that funding intact, by approving an additional 2% local tax on top of the mandatory 5%.

Particularly given the impacts that the new coronavirus is expected to have on global travel — and with the state and county constantly competing for tourists with other communities around Yellowstone National Park — “I think that we’re going to need this [lodging tax] as much as we ever have had to,” Wade said.

Even if Park County voters approved an additional 1% sales tax, bringing the combined tax on lodging to 12%, it would still be below average for the country, Wade said.

The new statewide lodging tax passed the Senate by a 16-13 vote and the House by a 47-13 margin.

Park County lawmakers backed House Bill 134 by a 5-3 margin: Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, all supported the measure while Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, and Sen. Wyatt Agar, R-Thermopolis, each voted no.

Sen. Coe was a vocal backer of HB 134 when it came up for final approval on Feb. 28. He cited tourism industry research indicating that 85% of the tax will be paid for by out-of-state tourists and that the hike in taxes will not depress visits.

“Lodging tax does not prohibit somebody from making a decision to visit a state. That’s just the bottom line,” Coe said on the Senate floor.

He also read aloud a column from Lander journalist and businessman Bill Sniffin, who argued lawmakers would be foolish to not provide more support to its growing tourism industry. Sniffin wrote in his piece that “there truly is no place [in Wyoming] that does not benefit from the visitor.”

“A small amount of money spent with the state tourism department generates much more money — it is as simple as that. The more people we get here the more money they spend,” Sniffin argued, adding later, “If this is the one area of state government that is making money, why not spend even more and make even more money?”

According to industry figures, tourism employs roughly 31,000 people in the state.

“We need this in the future of Wyoming,” said Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper. “If you look out 10 or 20 years, this could possibly be our No. 1 industry.”

While the bill had the backing of the Wyoming Lodging & Restaurant Association and the Wyoming Travel Industry Coalition, the two hoteliers in the Senate — Democrat Lisa Anselmi-Dalton of Rock Springs and Republican Cale Case — both opposed it.

Sen. Case said the guests at his Lander establishment include far more Wyoming residents than claimed and he called the estimated impact of the tourism office’s efforts “way overblown” with “exaggerated claims about the success of the programs.”

“If you really dive into the expenditures … about out-of-state advertising firms and on and on and on, all to bring more people to an area that’s really suffering from the overcapacity,” Case said, referring to Yellowstone National Park and Teton County’s “overheated” economy.

“You try to drive across Yellowstone? Have you just tried to go there and enjoy yourself?” he asked. “It’s hard to do.”

Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, echoed the concerns about Wyoming’s tourism efforts primarily benefiting the Jackson area.

“The rural areas of this state are being left out of the promotion, the help, all that goes with it,” Dockstader said. When he asks lodging businesses in his district if they feel a boost from the millions of dollars the state pours into tourism, the answer has been “essentially no,” Dockstader said.

Senate critics also contended that the majority of Wyoming residents opposed the tax, citing emails from parents who rack up nights on the road while tracking their children’s sporting events.

“Most of you are going to vote on the sides of the lobbyists,” Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, told his colleagues. “I’m going to vote on the side of my people and the everyday citizen that can’t afford to drive down here and try to lobby you.”

Earlier, as the Senate debated an ultimately unsuccessful amendment that would have diverted 20% of the state’s share of the tax to K-12 education, Biteman noted it was likely to be the only tax the Legislature passes this year.

“… and it doesn’t go toward any of our structural [budget] problems,” he said, “it just goes to a private industry to promote themselves.”

However, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the bill would help Wyoming’s efforts to broaden its tax base and diversify its economy.

A fiscal note attached to the legislation estimated that the 3% portion of the tax headed to state tourism efforts will raise roughly $18.6 million per year.

Transparency: State Ombudsman Should be Empowered to Resolve Public Record Disputes

in Column/CJ Baker

By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Wyoming lawmakers and Gov. Mark Gordon deserve real credit for their efforts to improve citizens’ access to public records in 2019.

Revisions to the state’s public records law — approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor — set a definitive 30-day timeline for turning over records and created a new “public records ombudsman.”

We were excited about the addition of an ombudsman, hoping they could help avoid expensive court fights when information seekers get into an argument with a government agency over what information is public.

But it was dismaying to hear last week that the office may actually have little power to sort out disputes.

The new law says that, just like a judge, the public records ombudsman can deliver “a determination as to whether the custodian [that is, the government] has demonstrated good cause” for withholding any particular record.

However, the state’s first public records ombudsman, Ruth Van Mark, told members of the Wyoming Press Association on Friday that there’s some uncertainty as to how her office is supposed to handle disputes. For instance, Van Mark is not a lawyer, so there’s been some concern that she shouldn’t be giving anyone any legal advice.

And while Van Mark believes she needs to make a determination as to whether a particular record is public, the governor’s office is still working to figure out how to do that “within the confines of the law.”

“There’s some disagreement as to whether the act actually gives the ombudsman the authority to make opinions, issue opinions,” Van Mark said. It’s possible, she said, that her role is more to try persuading information seekers and government agencies to come together and meet in the middle.

Van Mark made very clear that the question has yet to be settled, and she has only been on the completely new job for a few months, so it would be premature to jump to any conclusions. But we suspect it will take more than persuasion to settle the kinds of disputes that are most likely to come before the ombudsman.

We’ve found local government officials and employees are, as a rule, open, transparent and helpful. For that reason, the disagreements over public records typically arise in some of the stickier situations and grayer areas of the law. For instance, would the release of an internal investigation into a government employee’s misconduct be in the public’s interest, or “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and thus confidential?

Governments are loathe to release any information that could possibly be construed as being part of an employee’s confidential personnel, in part because of concerns about liability. And that means prying any kind of employee information out of a government agency can require hiring a lawyer and paying high legal fees.

Here’s an example. In 2013, the City of Laramie hired a former mayor as recreation manager, and questions were raised about her qualifications for the job. When Laramie officials refused to release any information about her work history, the Laramie Boomerang went to Albany County District Court and ultimately won a ruling saying that such basic biographical information was a public record.

However, when the Powell Tribune later cited that opinion in seeking the resumé of a disgraced police officer, a City of Powell attorney told the Tribune it would need to get a separate order from a Park County District Court judge.

These are the kind of disputes that we hope an ombudsman can resolve.

To be sure, we appreciate Van Mark’s approach and her willingness to help anyone with a question about public records — and we appreciate the Legislature’s decision to create a position dedicated to helping bring public information to light. But ultimately, it will be a profound disappointment if the ombudsman lacks the power needed to settle tough disputes.

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