By Bob Bonnar
Newcastle News Letter Journal
Vice President, Wyoming Press Association
The Wyoming State Legislature should be applauded for passage of Senate File 25 (Public Records) and SF 27 (Open Meetings), but not because either piece of legislation took any great steps towards making government more open to the public.
What the new law does is go to significant lengths to address new technology, by clearly defining records produced using that technology (email, the Internet, etc.), and conversations held through those mediums, as public domain. This ensures the wealth of government information that can be created and distributed by those means will always remain available to the public.
The legislation also provided some clarification to existing open government laws in an effort to alleviate any confusion that may have existed on the part of the media, public officials and the people we all serve, regarding the right of citizens to access information used to reach decisions on their behalf. It also clearly details the responsibility those officials have to make that information available to the public.
The successful passage of both bills is due largely to the fact that the language in the legislation was crafted through several months of meetings and conversations between members of the Wyoming Press Association and representatives of groups that speak for local and state government entities around Wyoming- including the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the state’s County Attorneys and conservation districts, the University of Wyoming, and a wealth of other organizations too numerous to list.
The exercise was so rewarding, and the result so positive for the people of Wyoming, that the Legislature has decided to review and update other laws that pertain to the level of involvement Wyoming residents have in the decisions their government makes on their behalf, and all of these groups will undoubtedly spend the next year working together in an effort to universally improve the understanding of those laws, and how valuable they are for the people of Wyoming.
While the most recent legislation dealt with the state’s commitment to making sure information is available to citizens who actually seek it, the laws that will be tackled next year pertain to the publication of legal notices, or the duty of our government to actively distribute that information to the people it serves.
In other words, the bills just passed by the Legislature made sure that those who want to be involved in the government process, and possess the knowledge used to guide it, can get that information when they request it. The laws that will be explored over the course of the next 12 months demonstrate the desire of government to encourage its citizens to be active and informed participants in that process by distributing the information to them directly.
For more than 100 years, community newspapers have been the vessel through which that knowledge has been put in front of the people of Wyoming, and for good reason. An American Opinion Research Poll commissioned by the Wyoming Press Association at the end of 2010 demonstrated that more than half of this state’s residents use printed newspapers as their primary source of local news and information, more than all other mediums combined (including cable and national TV, radio and the Internet). The same survey reported that the number of Wyoming residents who use a printed newspaper for local political issues (65 percent) is more than double the percentage of people who rely on television (12 percent), radio (7) and the Internet (6) combined.
The survey also revealed that almost nine in ten adults in Wyoming (89 percent) read a newspaper in an average week, so the best way to put government notices, minutes and expenditures in front of the public is through newspaper publication. It has long proven to be the most effective manner of informing citizens of the decisions being made and how money being spent on their behalf, and it is done at a cost that is far less than even 1 percent of those expenditures. The fact that the notices are published in newspapers also guarantees that the important records are distributed and preserved by a third party that is independent from government itself.
While the system has served us well for more than a century, a detailed review of the law is appropriate because modern technology does allow government to make that information even more readily available to the segment of the population that has embraced the Internet. That’s why, for several years, the Wyoming Press Association has been placing all of the public notices printed in newspapers throughout the state on a website (www.wyopublicnotices.com) at no additional cost to local governments or the people they serve.
We were gratified to learn that lawmakers are eager to build on the success of the new laws created during the recently concluded session, laws that ensure that our government will always be ‘of’ and ‘for’ its people, and the Wyoming Press Association is anxious to improve upon the law that demonstrates the responsibility shared by all of us (legislators, local officials and newspapers alike) to make certain we continue to be served through government that is ‘by’ the people as well.