Powell Tribune (WY) editorial: Toughening of public records act would be a positive step

We’re pleased to see Wyoming lawmakers taking a preliminary step toward strengthening the state’s public records act.

Late last month, the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee endorsed a bill that would give government officials a deadline for providing public records: They’d need to turn over the records within 17 days of when they’re requested.

Currently, there’s no deadline and, while some exceptional requests may take longer to fulfill, we think that sounds more than reasonable as a general rule.

We already find local and state agencies to, on the whole, be helpful and prompt in our requests for public records. Ask for a copy of a document submitted at a Park County Commission meeting or a City of Powell liquor license application, for instance, and you’ll likely get it within minutes.

However, statutes aren’t written with the true public servants in mind, but for those officials who might be tempted to take their sweet time or deliberately slow-walk a request. It’s not a theoretical concern, either.

Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the government is required to give a boilerplate acknowledgment of a request within a month. However, there’s no deadline for turning over records. The Tribune has found that even a simple request can take a half-a-year and repeated prompting to get anything released.

There have been complaints at the state level, too.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit groups American Transparency and the Equality State Taxpayers Association paid the State Auditor’s Office nearly $8,000 to produce five years of state spending data. But close to four months later, the groups said they’d received only a fraction of the information they’d requested, WyoFile.com reported.

(Whether it was fair that the groups had to pay that fee for the public records is another question.)

Putting a definitive timeline on when requests must be answered should help give clarity to both elected officials and the public. And for most agencies, we suspect they’re already processing requests much faster than 17 days and would have no trouble with the change. (Read more…)