September 3, 2018

Putting a Price Tag on Civic Engagement


Graphic by descrier.co.uk


Providing transparency to citizens is not an “add-on” to the job of the government that citizens should have to pay for.


By Dustin Bleizeffer / 07.22.2018
WyoFile


The Wyoming Department of Administration and Information has misinterpreted a 2014 state law in order to pressure agencies to charge citizens exorbitant fees to access public records. This fee-for-access policy is unnecessary and only serves to separate citizens from their representative state government.

The Outdoor Council is among dozens of entities and individuals that regularly inspects state records to ensure that our government carries out the law and works on behalf of its citizens. In Wyoming, we often pride ourselves on our accessible and responsive state government, but this recent effort subverts this ideal. We can do better, and it doesn’t have to come at an additional cost.

We applaud the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee for taking up the topic of public records requests this year. A good start would be to scrap Wyoming A&I’s flawed and anti-democratic fee policy. We hope committee members take a cue from the citizen-led Air Quality Advisory Board on this matter.

The Air Quality Advisory Board is one of several citizen-led boards that help guide the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Rather than join other state agencies that have adopted the flawed pay-for-transparency policy, the board declined, with some members questioning not only the wisdom of such a policy but also A&I’s interpretation of the law.

A&I’s policy for imposing fees for public records began with a law passed in 2014 aimed at “administrative rules streamlining.” One section of the bill also directed A&I to adopt uniform rules “for the use of” agencies as they set “procedures, fees, costs and charges for inspection, copies and production of public records.” The legislative language did not mandate fees, and in fact, recognized the unique situation of each agency and the need for flexibility:

(j)  Each state agency shall adopt as much of the uniform rules promulgated pursuant to the following provisions as is consistent with the specific and distinct requirements of the agency and state or federal law governing or applicable to the agency.

In particular, the Wyoming DEQ is subject to public records requirements established in the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act, as well as federal environmental laws that it helps to implement. These laws assure that citizens have the right to know about activities that affect public health, including the water we use and air we breathe. Other state agencies may have similar public transparency requirements. A&I’s exorbitant fee structure is in conflict with these other bedrock laws.

Equally concerning is the manner in which Wyoming A&I’s public records fee was crafted — without proper consideration given to input from Wyoming citizens and state agencies.

The Wyoming A&I and the DEQ have options other than using a cookie-cutter approach for all public records requests. The agencies could outline what constitutes a frivolous request that might justify special fees, or provide a waiver of fees for requests that serve the public interest (as the federal government does under its Freedom of Information Act). Wyoming A&I could also focus on how state agencies could actually “streamline” internal information systems to allow for more efficient response to public records requests. Dozens of tools exist to effectively archive, keep confidential when appropriate, and retrieve records online.

It’s true that it can take considerable effort to search through thousands of electronic communications to find records targeted in a public records request. But the vast majority of citizens who ask for public records work in good faith to narrow the scope of their requests.

Providing transparency to citizens is not an “add-on” to the job of the government that citizens should have to pay for. It is a core duty of our state government. We already cover the cost to produce public records with our taxpayer dollars dedicated to support state agencies.

We stand with the Air Quality Advisory Board in resisting the current A&I effort to make Wyoming state government transparency more difficult and expensive. And we join Wyoming citizens in asking the state to instead conduct an open discussion about how state agencies can more efficiently respond to public records requests. This is the type of accountability, openness and responsiveness that Wyomingites expect and deserve from our representative government.


Originally published by WyoFile and reprinted here with permission.

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