- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Twenty-year-old Courtney Peterson didn’t know what to expect when she walked into the Torrington Police Department on a recent Thursday.

Peterson, a recent Eastern Wyoming College graduate, is not a member of the media and doesn’t have much experience asking for public information from government officials.

So when she asked for the department’s list of recent arrests - documents defined as public records by state law - she didn’t think there would be a problem.

Instead, she was stonewalled by government officials who she said were suspicious and even hostile to her request.

“The lady I talked to wanted to know why I wanted the information, and she said, ‘I’m not going to give it to you,’” Peterson said. “I wasn’t expecting her to be that rude. I was just kind of shocked.”

Peterson was one of more than a dozen volunteers who participated in a recent public records audit led by the Wyoming Press Association and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

The spot check of many of the cities, towns, counties and school districts across the state tested whether government officials would provide access to public records that state law says should be open to anyone.

Most localities were happy to provide the documents. But the audit revealed repeated instances, such as the one Peterson encountered, when government officials made it difficult or flat out refused to release the records.

Newspapers across the state asked volunteers or members of their newsrooms to ask for a set of documents from city, town and county offices, law enforcement groups and school districts.

Volunteers were instructed to ask to inspect the records and report whether the government officials complied with their request.

Cities, towns and counties overwhelmingly agreed with requests to release their budgets and bills - also called warrants - that have been paid by the locality.

Volunteers reported that the information was released in almost all cases.

And some even said that local clerks, secretaries or other officials were especially helpful or went out of their way to provide the documents.

Genesis Martinez, a lifestyles reporter at the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner, went to the Rock Springs City Hall at the beginning of April to seek the city’s budget and warrants.

Martinez said the documents were delivered without hesitation.

“The gentlemen who helped seemed nervous, as he wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to look at the records for, but he was very helpful,” she said. “He brought up multiple boxes of bills and happily explained the budget and expenditure report to me.”

But requesting records from law enforcement agencies was more problematic for many volunteers.

Four of the 16 sheriff’s departments and six of the 18 police departments visited did not release their rolling logs, also known as their daily or weekly arrest records, upon request.

Celena Shaffer, a bartender in Lusk, for example, reported she had no problem getting public records from the Lusk Town Hall and Niobrara County School District 1.

But she said she had trouble finding the right information when she was told to use a “very unhelpful” public access computer terminal at the Lusk Police Department.

And then she was denied access to the rolling logs for the Niobrara County Sheriff’s Department when she was incorrectly told that they are not public records.

“The person I talked to was almost rude about it,” Shaffer said. “They said they don’t give that out at all.”

All school districts that volunteers visited, meanwhile, complied with requests to view their latest school board meeting minutes.

But it was a far different story when the volunteers asked for a list of teachers’ salaries.

In by far the biggest area of noncompliance, only six of the 18 school districts visited released a list of teachers’ names along with their salaries.

Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne attorney who specializes in public records and open meetings laws, said this is particularly worrisome since the Wyoming Supreme Court recently ruled that teacher salaries are public records.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle sued Laramie County School District 1 in 2010 when the district would not release the names of its employees along with their salaries.

The state Supreme Court ruled the next year that this information must be made public.

But Moats said there still is a misconception that the government can conceal the salaries of tax-payer-funded employees.

“I think it’s an idea generally that what people make is their private information, and there is this basic understanding that only your bosses get to know what you make,” he said. “But in these cases, the bosses are ultimately the public.”

Peterson’s experience at the Torrington Police Department was not the only time volunteers were met with a common set of questions: “Who are you, and why do want the records?”

Several other volunteers shared similar stories of government officials demanding their name or why they wanted to see the documents.

Moats said this flies in the face of both the letter and spirit of the state’s public records law.

“I think this is a big problem,” he said. “It gives this impression that you have to have a good reason to ask for the documents.

“But even the courts have said that you can’t select and say, ‘You are person a who is worthy to receive the documents,’ or not.”

These types of questions are not as much an issue for members of the media, who regularly ask government officials for information.

But Moats said it can be a major barrier for members of the public who aren’t as familiar with the state laws.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, agreed.

“It can be intimidating when someone asks you that,” he said. “And it is especially so when it is coming from someone in uniform.”

The Equality State Policy Center, a Cheyenne-based progressive think tank, has been active on the state and local level in pushing for government transparency.

Neal said he has seen some “incremental” progress during the past few years in how government officials respond to public records requests.

But he said it is clear that some government officials need more training so they can better comply with state laws.

“When we know it’s a public record, it should be just like going to the public library,” he said.

The Internet has largely been seen as a way to open government to more people, as many localities have posted a wealth of public documents to their websites.

But the public records audit shows that government officials’ reliance on the Internet can also be problematic.

Several volunteers reported that they were referred to the Internet when they asked for documents from the various agencies.

Since many volunteers didn’t challenge that instruction, this was counted as a “yes” for the survey.

But experts say the officials may not be following the law if they just leave it at that.

“It’s good that (the records) are online,” Moats said. “But that can’t be the answer for everyone, and that does provide an excuse to deny inspection.”

Moats said the state law allows the public to inspect documents in their physical form unless it exists primarily or exclusively in electronic form.

Neal added that this is important because not all citizens have easy access to a computer or the Internet.

In addition, he said finding the information online can be a challenge at times, even for technologically savvy individuals.

“It seems to me that if they want to direct people online, they should direct the person to a computer in their office they can use,” Neal said. “That way they can give the person assistance if they need help finding the information they need.”

The Wyoming Association of Municipalities hosts a workshop during most of its winter and summer conventions to review the state’s public records laws and to go over tips for dealing with the press.

Brian Dickson, a member of the Lovell City Council and president of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said this is part of the group’s efforts to make sure elected officials and others fully understand what is required and expected of them.

“It is our view that you always fulfill a request for public records unless it’s personnel-related or contains other confidential things,” he said. “That being said, there are 99 municipalities in the state … so there is certainly going to be people with different opinions.”

Dickson acknowledged there are compliance problems in some localities that need to be corrected.

He said part of the challenge is dealing with the regular turnover of government officials and making sure everyone is up to speed on any changes to the state laws.

Shelley Simonton, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, added that, for the most part, city and county clerks are well versed in the law and how to deal with the press and members of the public.

But she said even when the clerks want to help, they might be juggling other tasks at the same time.

“In some municipalities, clerks are the only employee there working,” she said. “And they might be answer phones or running other projects while they are trying to find the records, so the public can be challenged to understand that.”

Simonton and Dickson also both noted that they hope problems in the future can avoided if both government officials and members of the public work together, rather than fighting over what is public and what is private.

“Something my mother taught me, and I have found this to be true, is that you get better cooperation by being nice,” he said. “If you ask for a record, my hope is you’d be patient, rather than slam your fist on the table able and say, ‘You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.

“I understand that it may have to come to that, but it is my hope that is a last resort or a last avenue.”

Neal agreed that patience and understanding on the part of both sides could resolve many of the problems. But he said citizens shouldn’t forget how important it is that they have access to public documents.

“I’ve found transparency in government is one of the shared values of people of all stripes in Wyoming,” he said. “In a world that operates on information, this is one of the fundamental aspects of a democracy.”

___

Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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