Wyoming’s new public records law goes into effect next month, and state lawmakers are already discussing potential changes.
An impetus for the discussion, which occurred during a Tuesday committee meeting in Gillette, is the requirement that governments must generally produce records within 30 days of a request being made.
Some state agencies have suggested that deadline is too onerous.
The University of Wyoming is one entity expected to be impacted by the new law that goes into effect July 1.
Tara Evans, UW’s general counsel, requested almost $140,000 for a new “associate general counsel” position, including benefits, to help with the new workload for the 2020 fiscal year.
“I’m not sure the Legislature understands the burden that FOIA places on UW and the time and resources are placed on that,” Trustee Kermit Brown said. FOIA refers to the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that only applies to federal records. However, the acronym is sometimes colloquially used to refer to any public records laws, including Wyoming’s.
Outgoing UW Laurie Nichols has already funded $100,000 of that request for the upcoming year through internal reallocation of funds.
At UW’s budget hearings in May, Evans suggested that the trustees should request more funding for the position in the 2020 biennial budget session of the Legislature.
“I want to say that I completely understand and agree with the (new) law,” Evans told the trustees. “It’s a transparency law and it makes sense because we’re funded by the taxpayers. But it is an increasing burden. We see over 200 requests each year. ... A lot of it is voluminous and because we have a lot of regulation that cover us, (attorneys) have to review all of them.”
In Gillette on Tuesday, the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee heard from state and local agencies on potential issues they see with Senate File 57. That bill was passed in the final days of the 2019 Wyoming Legislature with significant support in both chambers, and sets specific time frames and guidelines for how government agencies should respond to records requests.
While most records requests are narrow and can be responded to within that set time frame, both the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Attorney General’s Office said massive requests for records like troves of emails could never be provided in that short of a time frame.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Ryan Schelhaas said there are 30 exceptions in state law that would prevent a public record from being released, with eight of those being at the discretion of the agency. Those exceptions, some of which have multiple parts, mean that for massive requests for public information, there’s a significant amount of work that has to be done to ensure the government is meeting its legal obligation to the public.
“There are reasonable requests, too, and we will fulfill those, and those aren’t challenging to fulfill. But on the other side, there are challenges with dealing with these broad requests,” Schelhaas said during his testimony. “And in this day and age, it’s easy for individuals to shoot off a request to a state agency via an email saying, ‘I want all your emails for this person or this person.’
“Agencies can just get inundated with (requests).”
The fear from state agencies, along with some members of the committee, was a 30-day deadline would create massive failures to comply with the law.
Many members of the Joint Judiciary Committee seemed to express a desire to tighten, change or completely overturn SF 57. But Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, said in his tenure in the Legislature, he’d never seen lawmakers try to change a bill before it had even had a chance to go into effect.
“I’ve heard of all kinds of great ideas here today. But as of July 2, some of those ideas may shift and may change, and some of them you guys may want to implement prior to, or there upon, it becoming law,” Jennings said. “It seems very strange that we’re very fixated on fixing a problem in a bill that hasn’t become law. It just seems premature to me or weird.”
Reportage of the Joint Judiciary Committee meeting in Gillette comes from Wyoming Tribune Eagle state government reporter Ramsey Scott.