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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.

Five questions with Public Records Ombudsman Ruth Van Mark

in News/Transparency
public documents

A Torrington native and longtime congressional staffer has taken her new duties in a state office created to mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Ruth Van Mark has been in the office of public records ombudsman, created by legislation approved by the Legislature earlier this year, since her appointment to the post by Gov. Mark Gordon on Sept. 30.

Van Mark returned to Wyoming in 2012 after serving in a number of positions in Washington, D.C., including stints as the legislative director for U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and as the minority staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In an interview with the Cowboy State Daily, Van Mark discussed, among other things, her vision for the office and how she will work to resolve disputes that sometimes arise when government entitles are asked to release documents.

Cowboy State Daily: What do you see as the main objective of your office?

Van Mark: 

Well, when the governor interviewed me, he told me in no uncertain terms that he wants transparency. And that he wants the exemptions from the law … interpreted as narrowly as possible. Because he wants as much information available to the Wyoming public as possible and as quickly as possible.

So I see my job as carrying out that mandate. And setting it up to make it as easy as possible for people to contact the office, get us the information they need and access the information.

So one of the things we are doing to accomplish that is we are working, even today, on a button on the governor’s website that people can go to and hopefully get all their questions answered on how they can get a public record. 

We’ll help direct them to the right agency. If they’ve contacted the agency and they have a problem, they can initiate a complaint with the ombudsman and we’ll respond to it.

Cowboy State Daily: How do you plan to accomplish that?

Van Mark: 

I think it’s going to really depend on what comes to the office, because in addition to educating agencies on what it is the public records act requires of them, I can’t go in and just pick records and say ‘I’m going to make this public.’ 

So I have to wait until a citizen comes to me and says ‘I’ve requested this information, I believe it falls within the parameters of the public records act, I’m having problems.’ And then we can get to work and do that, and make it as available as possible. 

So it’s a little difficult right now to say how we’re going to do it, we’re just going to have to … do it. So what I’m trying to do now is establish procedures.

On our website, we’re going to try to make it as user friendly as possible. We ask maybe somewhat leading questions: ‘Have you contacted the agency that holds the record? If you haven’t, this is how you do it.’

But the act is very clear that at any point in the process, the public can come to the ombudsman or the courts. So I can’t really say ‘You can’t come to me first,’ but I believe it will probably work better for the person requesting the information if they go to the agency that holds it first.

And I will give you one example. (It) was a simple little thing. (A woman) had contacted the agency that had the record and she hadn’t heard back from them. So I just called them and said ‘Hey, such and such has asked for such and such, could you give them a call?’ They called her right away, she got the information she wanted, she was happy. So it can be as simple as that. 

Cowboy State Daily: What do you see as the main obstacles to the release of information?

Van Mark: 

I’ve been talking to some of the agencies and asking them ‘What are some of your frustrations?’ I believe it’s not that they don’t want to release the documents, it’s that they have time constraints on them and (restraints on their) resources. The biggest concern people are going to have is complying within the deadlines established in the law. 

But reading the law, it says you have to acknowledge (a request) within seven days and deliver within 30 days unless you contact the individual requesting the information and you work out a time frame.

This is still Wyoming, I think people are reasonable, I think that if agencies get in contact with the people who contacted them and they feel like they can’t produce the information within the prescribed time frame, they can work out a deal with the requester. And if that can’t happen, they can come to me and I’ll try to work out a deal that both can live with.

Cowboy State Daily: How will you handle disputes over document releases?

Van Mark: 

One of the things I learned working 30 years on Capitol Hill in D.C. was how to bring two warring sides together, come up with something you can live with.

My last position on Capitol Hill was as the minority staff director of a Senate committee and in order for that committee to do its work, both sides of the aisle had to work together and we had to move forward. Sometimes, you have to put aside your emotions and see what the goal is and find the sweet spot to getting there. 

This is building on that, where if a constituent or requester has requested information and the agency says ‘No, we don’t have to deliver that to you under the public records act,’ the first thing I have to do is determine what exactly the public records act says with respect to the request. And then from that point on, try to mediate a third path, so to speak, so that both sides can move forward. 

Of course, there may come a time when it’s not possible and either the requester has to go to court or … give up on it. 

The goal of this office is to always come up with a satisfactory result that both sides can live with. We want to avoid the court as much as possible.

Cowboy State Daily: Do you anticipate “growing pains” with this office?

Van Mark: 

Oh, yes. And in fact, I have a couple people around the state I want to beta test my website on. Because that’s going to be one of the things that we’re going to put it out and I’m going to think ‘This answers every possible question that someone could raise.’ But sure enough, it won’t. And so that will be one thing that we’ll continually update and revise.

Certainly … the legislators are already looking at some potential amendments to the statute, so we’re going to have to incorporate anything they decide to change into the website or into how we interpret what’s going on.

And there’s going to be things that come up that I just can’t for the life of me imagine right now. And we’re just going to have to adapt and move forward.

So, yeah, there’s going to be growing pains big time. Anytime you establish an office from scratch, that’s just a given. 

Hopefully what we’ll do, though, is have enough procedures or plans in place that we’ll be able to just take that and run with it and not have to worry about re-doing the whole organization, but we’ll be flexible enough to accommodate changes.

State auditor’s transparency website “jumping off point” for detailed records requests

in News/Transparency

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily 

Many Wyoming residents want state government to be more transparent, but few can agree the best way to go about it.

“When we talk about transparency, if you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 definitions,” Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines said. “The one thing we’ve heard consistently is folks want to see the (state’s) checkbook online.”

Racines took office in January as a six-year legal battle between the state auditor’s office and transparency groups regarding access to the checkbook came to a close. After campaigning on the promise of transparency, Racines followed through by releasing six years of government-spending data almost immediately upon entering office. Fulfilling the request for years past, however, was just the start. Racines said she wanted the checkbook to be readily available for every Wyoming resident to easily peruse on a whim.

“We’re trying to be proactive,” Racines explained. “We wanted it to be on the internet, but we don’t have money in the state coffers to develop a big, expensive transparency platform.”

So she put her IT team to task: build a website that can be easily navigated, simple and an effective doorway for future information requests. 

“This is certainly an extra ask on their plate,” Racines said. “We have a five-member IT team, and they started building the website in January in addition to their full-time duties.”

Wyopen.gov went live July 17. 

“They really came to the table with an awesome product,” Racines said. “And we did it at essentially no extra cost to the taxpayer.”

By following the link, visitors are greeted with a simple white screen, minimal text, a “search transactions” button and links to overall expenditures for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The website’s face is uncluttered with gratuitous design elements, unnecessary images or the lengthy mission statements so commonly found littered across “dot gov” sites these days. As for usability, the search function has several fields to narrow down the user’s results, but only two fields need to be filled in for the engine to work.

Searchable fields include:

  • Start and end dates: Format sensitive;
  • Agency: Multiple choice;
  • Expenditure category: Multiple choice;
  • Description: Multiple choice;
  • Vendor name: Partial names are searchable, and;
  • Location: City, state or zip code.

“We talked to different user groups and tried to anticipate how citizens would think when they want to see data,” Racines said. “When we query data on the back end, it’s based on parameters they don’t necessarily know, like the (category) codes.”

After entering a search request, the user is presented with a spreadsheet containing basic data related to their search, which includes:

  • Date of payment;
  • Agency: The government agency making the payment;
  • Vendor name: The recipient of the payment;
  • Expenditure category: What account the check was billed to;
  • Description: Basic reason for the payment;
  • State: The state the check was sent to, and; 
  • Payment amount: The check total.

The information presented is only the bare bones of a checkbook, and in some cases, it may seem confusing. For instance, one expenditure category may be “In-State Bd/Comm Travel Reimbursements,” (In-state Board/Committee Travel Reimbursements) and its description could be “In-State Bd/Cm M&IE,” which can read like techno-babble for the casual user.

“This website will not fulfill every public records request, and we’re totally aware of that,” Racines said. “Our hope is when future requests get to us, the website will help them be a lot more dialed in.”

One of a government’s primary investments in fulfilling an information request is searching for the data requested, she explained. Broad requests require more time to fill, so providing the requestor tools to narrow the request could help the auditor’s office reduce fulfillment times.

“This is a really good jumping off point for our heavy-duty users,” Racines said. “We could drown this website in information, but I feel like that would be a disservice to the public.”

Website visitors interested in obtaining more information for any line item are encouraged to contact the auditor’s office. A dropdown menu on the top right side of the website lists two phone numbers and two emails for such requests.

While the website does contain a large chunk of the checkbook, it is not a complete ledger of every dollar spent by state government.

“There are some line items we are not allowed to release by state statute,” Racines explained. “Private citizen information, direct assistance payments to beneficiaries, some law enforcement agency expenses and victim payments are a few examples.”

With three years in the backlog, she said the auditor’s office is working to keep the information as up to date as possible.

“Initially we had planned to upload info quarterly, but now we’re looking at doing it monthly,” Racines said. “It’s not live, but it will be very timely.”

Because the website is not mandated by statute, Racines said she can’t speculate whether her successors will continue to update it, but she wasn’t aware of any reason they wouldn’t.

“We haven’t received any push back at all,” she added.

In the future, the website could include aggregated data, but for now, Racines said her team is content keeping the ship afloat.

“The beauty of it being a homegrown system is the cost is very low,” she said. “But, it’s not a luxury Cadillac.”

Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

in Government spending/News/Education/Transparency
Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

RIVERTON – In case you might’ve heard otherwise, please rest assured that a substitute teacher does not, in fact, hold the top-paying job in Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton. They’re not paying a custodian $120,000 a year, either.

But that certainly appeared to be the case if you were to visit the government spending accountability website OpenTheBooks.com Saturday morning. And it appears a transposing error is to blame.

Founded in 2011 and based out of a Chicago suburb, OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and disclosing the spending figures at every level of government, with an overall aim of providing the public accountability about where its money is spent. The nonprofit’s oversight reports on government spending have been featured by news outlets as diverse as C-SPAN, Good Morning AmericaFox News and The Wall Street Journal.

And according to FCSD 25 Personnel Manager Karen Wardner, the site does indeed show the correct figures for the employee wages paid in 2017, with Superintendent Terry L. Snyder topping the list at $212,685. But in the 2018 data, the top-earner listed is substitute teacher Terri L. Cole, with an annual wage of $216,894, with Snyder shown earning only $20,817 that same year.

“It’s definitely not accurate. I can assure you, we restrict the number of hours they (substitute teachers) work,” Wardner said in an interview Friday.

After viewing OpenTheBooks.com herself and observing the figures listed, Wardner said it appears the 2018 salary listing for Snyder was transposed with Cole’s name, possibly due to their similar first names and middle initial. 

“If you scroll down, it’s got her actual rate for 2017 at $6,665,” Wardner said.

The transposition appears to have thrown off much of the rest of OpenTheBooks’ 2018 salary list for the district. For example, Business Manager Lu Beecham – the district’s third-highest earner in 2017 at $120,000 – was switched out for a custodian in the 2018 list, so the custodian is shown making $120,450 while Beecham supposedly pulled down just $21,007.

Fortunately, Wardner said the error should be simple enough to fix once she’s able to determine whose names were transposed with whose. She said she planned to reach out to OpenTheBooks.com in the coming days to make sure the 2018 figures are updated to reflect reality. 

Moats: Legislative attitude to government openness disheartening

in Column/Transparency

By Bruce T. Moats

For the Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming citizens are abusing government agencies.

That is according to some legislators and other government officials discussing attempts by those who pay the bills – the taxpayers – to obtain public records.  The discussion took place at the recent meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee in Gillette.

The attitude toward citizen access to government information was disheartening.  It demonstrated a distrust of the public that I have too often seen as a journalist and now as an attorney representing reporters.  But at the same time, government officials often ask us to trust them.  They say, “Hey, we got this.  We will take care of it.  We got it.” 

To that I quote President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.”

Public access is not just about policing government, which is important, but is more about using the power of our collective judgment to better govern ourselves.  Abraham Lincoln noted that the rest of the world thought it folly for a government to involve people of all abilities and positions.  His answer was simple: Look where self-governance has brought us.

I cringe every time I hear government officials talk about providing public access to information as if it’s an annoying duty that is pressed upon them to the detriment of their regular duties.  Agencies do often struggle with adequate resources to fulfill their missions, but I humbly, with all my heart, say that providing public access is a critical part of those missions.  It is not an extra duty, a nuisance.  Instead, it is essential to democracy.  Listen to someone way smarter than I, James Madison:A Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

 Gov. Mark Gordon campaigned on transparency.  (By the way, I have never heard one candidate for office ever say they were for less public transparency.)  Gov. Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines have formed a transparency group. 

One day before the last meeting of the transparency group, Gov. Gordon’s deputy attorney general speculated before the Judiciary Committee about the possibility that citizens could overrun agencies by making agencies adhere to a 30-day deadline to turn over public documents – a deadline adopted during the last legislative session.

The new deadline has not even gone into effect yet. It will not take effect until July 1. Yet, the deputy attorney general testified, without any real evidence, that agencies can get “inundated” with requests, supporting calls on behalf of some committee members to place restrictions on a bill that has not yet taken effect.  

The Legislative Service Office conducted a survey of local governments and state agencies about the public records requests they received in 2017 and 2018.  The figures were so similar for both years that the survey report only considered 2018. I will note that no municipalities responded to the survey due to a possible email snafu.   What effect that might have had on the results is open to debate.

The governmental entities were asked to “estimate” the number of requests received and to rank the average size of the requests received.  Three categories were given — large (more than 1,000 documents), medium (500-1,000 documents), small (fewer than 500 documents) or discrete document requests for documents that are readily available.  If large requests were the most frequent, then that category receives a one on a scale of four.  If it is the least frequent, then it receives a four.  The agencies were also asked in what percentage of requests did they issue a charge. 

Nearly 60 percent of responding agencies had received three or fewer requests. Slightly more than 80 percent received fewer than 10.  More than 150 of the 177 responses listed the large requests as least frequent.  

Approximately half of the respondents listed requests for discrete documents as the most frequent. Approximately one-third listed the small requests as most frequent.  In nearly 80 percent of the requests, the agency did not level a charge.

The lesson of the survey is that large requests are the exception rather than the rule.  Agencies have not been inundated with requests.  Thus, we are legislating for the exception. 

In my 22 years representing reporters, I rarely have waited more than 30 days for an agency to respond to a records request.  The agency’s attorney and I have discussed, cussed and negotiated a reasonable period for fulfilling a request.  Even the 30-day deadline allows a custodian to take longer if the request is unusual.  I can assure you that I would have no luck with a judge trying to enforce an unrealistic deadline for a large request requiring review of, say, 100,000 emails. The Legislature provided a way to handle these unusually large requests.

We can thank transparency opponent Sen. Tara Nethercott, the committee co-chair, for the LSO survey proving that this is a solution looking for a problem.  Her questions were aimed at showing the difficulties facing large and small agencies.  Conversely, she used the same survey to question the need for a new public documents “ombudsman” created by the Legislature, saying most requests are filled without difficulty and the agencies did not even level a charge most of the time.

Timeliness is often vital when citizens are seeking government information.  There is usually a decision pending, a controversy in full swing.  Getting the information about the horse after it has already left the barn is not helpful.  I believe the creation of the ombudsman was an effort to resolve disputes more quickly than can happen in court.

When your right to information is curtailed, regardless of the reason, the power shifts even more in favor of the government.  Ultimately, it is up to you, the public, to protect your right to know what your government is up to.

 Don’t let anyone fool you that this is all a media issue. Officials don’t care if reporters are given information off the record, but they do care if that information is going to be shared with you, the public. Further, numerous instances of government wrongdoing – improper awarding of bids, improper use of government equipment – have been discovered by members of the public exercising their right to see what is being done with their resources on their behalf.
           The Judiciary Committee should not be working to restrict that right.

Spending data provides window into state expenses, but lacks big picture

in Government spending/News
Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget.

“There’s a lot in the checkbook, but there’s also a lot missing,” said Kevin Lewis, an Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) researcher. “The auditor’s office only tracks the checks they write, and some agencies use their own internal accounting system.”

After a years-long legal battle between ESTA, American Transparency and the state, newly elected Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines, released the checkbook shortly after taking office in January. The checkbook contains approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Additionally, Lewis said portions of the released information are missing identifying codes.

The coding system is used so the data can be broken down by agency and spending category, but some codes fall short of identifying anything more than the department that ordered the expenditure.

“You’ll frequently see (in the checkbook) Wyoming Department of Transportation only, or Attorney General only,” Lewis said. “In general, you’d like to not have that, because it makes it difficult to figure out where the money is being spent.”

Confidential payments

Releasing information to the public is a complex process, but it boils down to fulfilling information requests, Racines said.

“Payroll is different than writing a check to someone,” she said. “The auditor’s office doesn’t deal with salaries, it deals with paychecks.”

Paychecks can include confidential information about employees, so Racines said her office has to approach releasing paycheck data carefully as some of it might be covered under various confidentiality laws, both state and federal.

Regardless of the hurdles, she said the answer to why payroll information wasn’t in the checkbook is simple.

“It wasn’t in the request,” Racines explained.

If the information were to be requested, she said the office would release the information, but only after they reviewed state and federal statutes and consulted with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office about what portions of the paycheck could be released.

Other confidential categories include victim benefit payments, some law enforcement activities, subsidized adoption payments and benefit payment assistance.

“There’s a lot of categories that might seem obvious,” Racines said. “And some of the categories are not as black and white as they may seem. An expert witness payment may be confidential while a case is ongoing, but not later.”

Because the checkbook is a line-by-line expense report, the auditor said it did not include many payments protected by confidentiality laws. While the payments themselves are confidential, the amount an agency spends on a confidential category is not. 

“The public can request to see how much an agency spent on something like victim’s benefit payments,” Racines explained. “But because that wasn’t in the (checkbook) request, we didn’t include it.”

The auditor’s office handles most of the state’s accounting, but some agencies use their own accounting system.

“We use Wyoming Online Financial System, which is like a gigantic version of QuickBooks,” Racines said. “Some agencies, like the University of Wyoming, have an internal system, though.”

When an agency uses a different system, Racines said she can’t access its records, and therefore, her office couldn’t include its expenditures in the checkbook. In addition to the university, Wyoming Game and Fish and WYDOT expenses were largely absent from the released data as well as Wyoming Pipeline Authority and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority line items.

“The infrastructure authority and the pipeline authority are a little different,” Racines explained. “They’re authorities, not agencies, so my understanding is the state cuts them a check for their budget, because it is appropriated by legislature. Then (the authorities) cut out individual checks.”

Coding system

Wyoming’s agencies use about 6,000 codes to categorize how state money is spent, but the system is old and has not been regularly updated, Racines said.

“Our data is only as good as our codes are,” she explained. “We have a lot of codes that are unused, and some that could maybe be better described.”

Lewis said without better code descriptions, the data reviewers are left to guess at what the state spends money on.

“On one line item, maintenance might be spelled out, but on another it could be just MT, then in another it’s ‘Op & Maint,’” Lewis said. “Spelling and consistency problems aside, the chart of accounts often doesn’t include enough information about the item. We can see the governor’s office spent ‘X’ amount on farm equipment in 2017, but we don’t know why.”

Even with missing codes and jumbled descriptions, Lewis said releasing the checkbook was strong step toward increasing transparency in Wyoming government, but it’s just the start.

“Even though we finally got the checkbook, we only have a little bit of the picture,” Lewis said. “We have a long way to go before we figure out the rest of it.”

Digesting the elephant: A dive into Wyoming’s checkbook

in News/Transparency

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With nearly 5 million line items totaling more than $27.5 billion of checks written during the last six years, delving into Wyoming’s checkbook could be like drinking from a firehose.

But Cowboy State Daily has a thirst for understanding how the state spends taxpayer dollars. So it is working with the Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) to provide readers with a series of stories about the mountain of data released by the Wyoming State Auditor’s Office in February.

Over the next several months, Cowboy State Daily will provide periodic in-depth looks at spending by different state agencies as outlined in the data.

“It would be pretty difficult to eat a whole elephant in one sitting,” ESTA Researcher Kevin Lewis said. “So, we’re cutting up the elephant into pieces instead of trying to digest it all at once.”

Newly elected Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines provided American Transparency, aka www.OpenTheBooks.com, and ESTA with most of Wyoming’s checkbook after a years-long legal battle played out between the two non-profit organizations and Wyoming’s former state Auditor Cynthia Cloud. 

“(American Transparency) has been requesting the checkbook since 2014,” Lewis explained. “And (ESTA) filed a joint request with them last year. In the end, we had to sue for the checkbook.”

After Racines released the requested data, the lawsuit was dismissed, he added.

Even with the checkbook in hand, reviewing the information is no simple task. While extensive, the checkbook does not provide complete data for every state agency’s expenditures, because some expenses such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments are confidential. Additionally, funding transfers between intergovernmental agencies don’t always appear as checkbook line items, Lewis said. 

Without a full account of every dollar spent, it can be difficult to determine how an agency spends the bulk of its funding.

To complicate matters, the checkbook was provided in calendar years, rather than fiscal years, which is how agencies receive budgets. But with 10 years of research experience with the University of Wyoming and ESTA, Lewis said he has a plan.

“I’m going to reorganize it into fiscal years, so we can compare budgets to expenditures,” he explained. “Then, I’ll break it down into agencies, then series.”

Fleshing out those agencies’ budgets could take more public record requests, but the data is a “good step forward,” Lewis said. Once organized, Cowboy State Daily and ESTA can combine forces to focus on stories taxpayers might find interesting.

“There are lots of agencies of interest,” Lewis said. “The (Wyoming) Department of Education, the Tourism Office, the Business Council and community colleges to name just a few.”

The goal of these stories is to inform Wyoming residents about how their tax dollars are used so voters can decide if the state government is practicing good stewardship of statewide resources.

“We’re exploring how the state spends its money,” Lewis said. “Until you actually start digging in, there’s no way of knowing what you’ll find.”

Racines says transparency panel will focus on gray areas of law

in News/Transparency
Racines Transparency Panel

A transparency task force created by Gov. Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines will focus on the “gray” areas of Wyoming’s public documents laws, Racines said.

Racines, speaking with a reporter from Cowboy State Daily, said Wyoming’s Public Documents Law has many vague areas that must be addressed individually.

“We keep using this elephant example,” she said “Transparency is an elephant and we’re not going to eat it all in one day There’s not just one big red button we’re going to push.”

Both Gordon and Racines made government transparency an issue during their election campaigns in 2018, pledging the creation of a financial transparency task force to look at how best to make public information on government finances available and accessible.

The task force held its first meeting in January and a second one is planned for March, Racines said.

The task force’s work is complicated by the fact many transactions handled by the state are confidential, such as Medicaid payments, Racines said, and even more are not specifically addressed by state law.

“As far as state expenditures, there still very vague areas in the law,” she said. “You might (look at) one class of expenditures, you ask three different attorneys, you get three different answers. Because it’s not laid out specifically in our statutes.”

In addition to the task force, Racines was a supporter of recently approved legislation setting a 30-day deadline for the production of public documents in response to a request.

Racines said she was particularly enthusiastic about a piece of the legislation creating an “ombudsman” to mitigate disputes over public documents.

“I am really excited about the ombudsman,” she said. “Before (a person requesting documents) have to go to court, you can go to the ombudsman and we can work this out.”

Some have suggested the position be filled by an attorney and Racines said she could understand why that might be helpful.

“As I’m learning about all the intricacies and all the gray areas and whether things are public or not, I can see where being a lawyer might be valuable,” she said. “We have an absolute responsibility to get information out that’s public. But we also are custodians of a huge amount of people’s private information … and so balancing those two, it’s a big deal.”

Want to know more about transparency in Wyoming. Watch our wide reaching conversation with Wyoming State Auditor Racines here.

Auditor encourages transparency, says it is not as simple as some believe

in Government spending/News/Transparency
Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines

By Cowboy State Daily

Transparency in state government is very important, but achieving it can sometimes be difficult, according to state Auditor Kristi Racines.

Racines, in an interview with Cowboy State Daily, said she strongly believes that information on state government spending must be available to the state’s taxpayers.

“We want to know, as taxpayers, where our dollars are going,” she said. “What is our government doing, do we agree with it, do we not. We can’t divine if we agree or not if we don’t have the information.”

However, it can sometimes take a great deal of work to determine whether information held by the state should be public or private, she said.

“It’s never quite as simple as some folks make it,” she said. “The auditor’s office, we put out checks and there’s well over 1 million a year … A lot of those are confidential. The overwhelming majority isn’t. But sorting out everything that’s confidential and isn’t, it’s not clear. Not everything is black and white.”

For instance, while the auditor’s office pays the state’s bills using public money, some expenses are confidential, such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments, she said.

Racines was elected last year to succeed Cynthia Cloud, who did not seek re-election. Cloud’s final months in office were marked by ongoing litigation with a government transparency advocacy group that worked for several years to gain access to the state’s “checkbook,” the list of payments made by the auditor’s office.

Racines released the information about one month after taking office.

“I can’t really speak to what was done before,” she said. “I know a lot of times, public records requests can be intimidating to public employees. There’s often times fear … and sometimes there’s just some misunderstanding there.”

Public documents bill headed to governor

in News/Transparency
Computer sever room, ALT=Wyoming public records bill to Governor Gordon

By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would require government officials to turn over public documents within 30 days of receiving a request for their release is on its way to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon.

Wyoming’s House on Tuesday approved a “joint conference committee” compromise on SF 57, clearing the way for it to be signed into law.

The bill was created after almost a year of work by the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. The committee was tasked with the job of making it easier to access public documents.

The bill had originally set a 10-day deadline for documents to be released, however, representatives of special districts such as hospital and irrigation districts argued that sometimes, their staffs would not be able to comply with requests in such a tight deadline. The bill was amended to provide for the 30-day time frame.

The measure also creates a position with the governor’s office of public documents “ombudsman.” That person would be responsible for mediating disputes between those asking for public documents and government entities at every level throughout the state.

Wording differences in the bill prevented its approval earlier. The differences were worked out by the joint conference committee and the resulting language was approved by the Senate on Monday.

Public documents bill clears House committee

in News/Transparency
Tax records stacked, ALT=Public Documents, House bills

By Cowboy State Daily

A 30-day deadline would be set for the release of public documents under a bill approved Thursday by a House committee.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions voted 9-0 to approve SF 57 for debate by the full House.

As approved by the Senate and sent to the House, the bill would give the holders of public documents 30 days to produce documents in response to requests from members of the public. It would also create the position of a public document ombudsman in the governor’s office who would be responsible for mediating disputes between state and local government bodies and the people asking for records

Today at the Wyoming Legislature: Party switching, tax break bills die in House

in News

By Cowboy State Daily

Bills on party switching, daylight savings time and a property tax exemption for seniors were all on the table at the Wyoming Legislature on Thursday.

A bill that would have limited when voters can change their party affiliations, SF 32, was killed for a second time by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.

The committee on Wednesday refused to send the bill to the Senate for a review by the full body. But committee Chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said there was interest in the Senate in seeing the bill, so he asked committee members to reconsider their vote Thursday. Members voted again not to send the bill forward.

The bill would have specified voters could only switch party affiliation before the filing period for candidates for office in early May. Two more bills aimed at putting similar restrictions in place are pending in both the Senate and House

House members killed by a vote of 29-27 a bill that would have removed the names of public employees from published lists of what counties and cities pay their employees. Current law requires that the names, positions and salaries of public employees be published.

A measure that would put Wyoming on daylight savings time year-round won approval in its “Committee of the Whole” review in the House. HB 14 will receive its second review in the House on Friday.

However, representatives voted 37-20 to kill a vote that would have granted property tax exemptions for some over the age of 65. HB 128 would have made seniors exempt from property taxes if they had owned their home for at least three years.

Public records bill clears Senate committee

in News

By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would require state agencies to release public documents within a specific period of time cleared a Senate committee on Thursday after the original version of the bill was almost entirely replaced.

SF 57 won unanimous approval from the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee for debate in front of the full Senate.As approved by the committee, the bill would require government agencies to release public documents within 30 days of their request. Currently, there is no deadline for the release of documents.

The bill would also create the position of “transparency ombudsman” in the governor’s office to mediate any conflicts between people asking for documents and government agencies.

Committee members had spent most of the interim developing a measure which would have required the release of documents within 10 days of a request and levied criminal penalties against government employees who failed to comply with the law.

However, the bill was changed in the face of testimony from a number of state and local government officials that they would be unable to meet the 10-day deadline if they received requests for large numbers of documents. State agency officials said they sometimes receive requests for many thousands of documents.

The new version of the bill also contains no criminal penalties.

Committee members agreed the issue of public documents would have to be looked at going forward, but most also agreed that the changes proposed in the bill would be a good first step.

“There are a lot of things this bill doesn’t do,” said committee Chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper. “Somehow, we’re going to have to get our arms around these massive requests.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, argued more work might be needed to craft an acceptable law.

“Allow this topic to be worked through the interim,” she said. “I believe we can do better to satisfy all the needs in the room.”

But Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, said he thought the change was needed immediately.“It’s not perfect, but it’s a great improvement,” he said.

The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions approved SF 57 for debate by the full Senate on a unanimous vote. The bill would require public agencies to release public documents no later than 30 days after they are requested. It would also create a “transparency ombudsman” to mitigate conflicts in document issues.

Transparency bill sent back for major overhaul

in News
Public records in Wyoming

By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would have set a deadline for public agencies to turn over public documents was pulled back Tuesday to allow for a major overhaul.

The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, faced with concerns by state and local government agencies about a proposed 10-day deadline for the release of public documents and criminal penalties for the law’s violation, agreed to begin work on the bill again using language proposed by the Wyoming Liberty Group.

Most committee members agreed that the change to the Wyoming Public Documents Act was needed to further improve government transparency, a cause championed by Gov. Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines.

“I feel this is an important tool to move the effort of our auditor and chief executive forward,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “If we let this slide, we will do a real disservice for transparency in Wyoming.”

The original bill, SF 57, would have set a 10-day deadline for government agencies to turn over documents and would have established criminal penalties for government officials who refuse to release public documents. The penalty could be a felony for anyone who knowingly and intentionally withheld a document that should be released.

The Wyoming Liberty Group’s proposed changes to the bill would set the deadline at 30 days and eliminate the criminal penalties entirely.

“That’s not the way we do things,” said Cassie Craven, who forwarded the group’s recommendations to the committee.

The group also recommended the creation of a document “ombudsman” inside the state who would resolve conflicts over the release of documents.

Craven said the philosophy governing public documents should be that the documents belong to the public, not the government.

“We need to take the position that the people own these documents,” she said.

The committee decided to work on changes to the bill Wednesday and review a revised measure Thursday.

The board’s decision came after a number of officials from state and local government agencies expressed concern about the 10-day deadline, saying it often could not be met.

Steve Lindly, deputy director of the state Department of Corrections, said his department often receives massive record requests, many times from inmates, that can take up to 400 hours to process.

“I would say most of our requests cannot be met in 10 days with current resources,” he said.

Other agency directors agreed and said the criminal penalties contained in the original bill would make it hard for them to direct people to fulfill public document requests.

Tony Young, the state’s chief information officer, told the committee the answer might lie with improved technology that would allow the state to post most of the information sought through public information requests on publicly accessible websites.

“If we can put the technology together, we may not have these requests come up,” he said.

Bill would limit amount of information provided on public pay

in News

By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would limit the amount of information provided in official notices about how much public employees are paid cleared a House committee Thursday.

HB 146 would remove the names of county and city public employees from a list that is published in the state’s newspapers.

Under current law, that list now must contain the name of each employee, their position and their salary. The bill would limit that information to positions and salaries only.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee approved the bill on a 5-4 vote for discussion by all members of the House.

However, the bill is opposed by “Foster’s Outriders,” a group formed by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess to pursue various interests in government including transparency.

“We view this as an extremely anti-transparency measure and it’s designed to hide from the public the names and salary information,” said Parker Jackson, a spokesman for the group. “They’re trying to separate those two from the public.”

In the interest of disclosure, it must be noted that Foster Friess is an investor in the Cowboy State Daily.

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