There’s a distressing trend among public institutions in Wyoming recently when it comes to transparency. And two examples have significant impacts in Albany County.
The first involves an investigative piece of journalism that looked at the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees’ recent actions that were dubiously kept under the blanket of executive session. Journalists’ findings showed the broad use of executive sessions — a provision that allows boards to meet in secret under certain clearly defined circumstances — has frequently left the public in the dark about how and why decisions were made.
It’s much appreciated that the most recent board actions have apparently more closely followed the letter of the law, but it’s clear that some decision-making preceding that was done without the opportunity for public scrutiny — especially when it comes to the dismissal of President Laurie Nichols.
What’s really going to determine whether faith can be restored in the public processes surrounding UW’s board of trustees is how things move forward. We can’t know whether there’s something that trustees felt needed to be kept out of the public view because we wouldn’t like how they arrived at their conclusions, but in the absence of public discussions or subsequent explanations, many in our community and around the state will assume the worst.
The board’s actions on May 7 and since have been encouraging. We hope the trustees sticks to that course. But let’s remember that there still was a closed-door discussion and there is no way for the public to really know whether the trustees stuck to the announced topic. We have to take that on faith, and given their demonstrated penchant for secrecy, we can only hope that they are following the rules.
Many in the Albany County area have continued expressing their distress about the killing of unarmed Laramie resident Robbie Ramirez by Albany County Sheriff’s Office Corporal Derek Colling. Our community is rightfully shaken by any such incident, but this one has led to feelings of distrust in our public institutions among some that we simply cannot ignore.
We understand Albany County officials have had their hands tied in discussing the matter because its insurance provider is continuing to insist they remain silent. But there is a document out there the public must have access to as soon as possible.
The state of Wyoming’s Department of Criminal Investigation should release an unredacted version of the report into the investigation into the death of Robert Ramirez as soon as possible. It is the understanding of the Boomerang that members of the media have requested those documents, which by the state’s open record law, should now be available. That information, however, has been denied to journalists and activists.
Again, there’s no way for the public to know what kind of information is contained in that report or how it would affect perceptions on the incident until it’s released. But we do know that not releasing it simply leads to speculation, skepticism of law enforcement and public distrust that our institutions work for us. If we have no reason to be concerned about what’s contained therein, then let’s see it and we’ll decide.
State statute allows DCI to withhold the document if officials believe it is not in the public interest to see it. We believe it is in the public interest, and if DCI feels it shouldn’t release the report, it must provide an explanation as to why.
If the public is stonewalled in seeing this document, many people again will assume the worst, doubting law enforcement pursued a just, objective conclusion in its investigation. In order to move forward, in order for the community to begin healing, all records that can be released must be.
These are not the only two examples locally or around the state. One only needs to look at news reporting around Wyoming to see there are frequently instances where institutions make it more difficult than it needs to be for the public to access its records. It’s a problem because the feeling often seems to be that if they make it hard enough to access records, it will eventually fall out of the news cycle and people will move on.
It leads to the notion that some officials perhaps think they’ll block the release of documents, and even if they know it’s not legal, they figure it would require litigation to have records released. Knowing that hiring legal counsel can be expensive for media outlets and private citizens, that may be where the inquiry stops.
That may work anecdotally, but in the long-term, it leads to festering skepticism and withered belief that we can trust elected and appointed leaders to be accountable in the way our system requires. If democracy in the U.S. is really in danger of faltering as some observers believe it is, then it is reasons like this we’re in that situation.