- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming state government is considering a proposed rule to allow state agencies to charge the public for staff time required to respond to requests to inspect electronic records.

While some media and public interest groups warn that enacting the rules could stifle public scrutiny of government operations, senior state lawmakers say the changes are necessary to keep agencies from getting swamped by information requests.

The Wyoming Department of Administration and Information released the draft rule this month. It calls for agencies to start billing after the value of staff time spent responding to a request exceeds $180.

The Legislature called for the rule to be drafted two years ago. Wyoming Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said Wednesday that it’s increasingly common to have lawyers and others making massive information requests from state agencies.

“They’re not targeted approaches, and the cost of producing these document requests is getting to be quite a burden in terms of time and cost,” Nicholas said. “The question is kind of rhetorical: If folks in Wyoming want to pay their state employees to be responding constantly to document requests from litigants, from the press, and they don’t want them to shoulder the burden of the costs, then we’ve got to build that into our budgets.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Service Office will review the rule in coming weeks. It will then head to the Legislature’s Management Council, a panel that includes Nicholas, House Speaker Kermit Brown and other legislative leaders, for review before it goes to Gov. Matt Mead for his consideration.

The Wyoming Press Association and some other groups had filed earlier comments opposing the rule, saying it would infringe on the public’s ability to hold government officials accountable. The Associated Press is an associate member of the press association.

“I don’t like this charging,” said Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association. “Wyoming has recognized public documents for more than 50 years as being important to the operation and transparency of state government. And I believe that willfully or not, this is putting an obstacle in that transparency.”

Shannon Anderson, organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said Wednesday the proposed rule threatens to choke her group’s ability to track activities at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies.

“Access to those records is really important to us and our members, and we’re concerned that these fees will be a barrier to transparency,” Anderson said.

Drake Hill, a Cheyenne lawyer, represents parties suing the state over the ongoing restoration work at the state Capitol in Cheyenne. The lawsuit alleges lawmakers and the Mead administration failed to follow state purchasing laws on the project.

“They’re trying to prevent the public from having access to information that the public is constitutionally entitled to,” Hill said of the proposed rule. “And when you start throwing up barriers to the access of information on the operation of government, then it gives the government the opportunity to operate in secret.”

Dean Fausset, director of the Department of Administration and Information, said Wednesday the proposed rule would apply to government email and other information in electronic formats that would require staff time to reproduce or make available for inspection. He said it wouldn’t apply to a request to inspect paper files.

“If I have a book on my shelf, for example, and it’s a public record, there would be no charge for you to come into my office to look at it,” Fausset said.

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