Interpreting the law

By: 
Alexis Barker

Alexis Barker

NLJ News Editor

 

Both the city and the county are interpreting differently the requirements of a law passed by the 65th Wyoming Legislature requiring governmental entities to designate a public records person. At issue is whether each entity, such as the city and the county, appoint one person to oversee public record requests addressed to the entity  they represent. Or can each entity simply appoint a public records person for each department under its jurisdiction?

The law, effective July 1, requires applications for public records to be made to the designated public records person, according to the State of Wyoming 65th Legislature website. The law is called the Public Records Act (SF0057). This person’s information must be given to the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information so that it can be posted on the department’s website.  

The bill defines “governmental entity” as the “state of Wyoming, an agency, political subdivision or state institution of Wyoming.” 

As of last week, both the Newcastle City Council and Weston County Commission have each designated a public records person or persons, although both expressed concerns over the interpretation of the bill. 

“The Legislature said we have to have a person designated the public records person, and this had led to an interesting question,” Jim Peck, Newcastle’s city attorney, told the council on May 20. 

Peck said he questions whether or not more than one person can be designated by the city, adding that he had attempted to get an interpretation from the state’s attorney general but was unsuccessful. According to Peck, other governmental bodies within the state are also questioning the new law’s meaning. 

Commissioner Marty Ertman told the commissioners on June 18 that questions were raised to the Wyoming County Commissioners Association about the interpretation of the bill. Chairman Tony Barton said he was told that the county should defer to the county attorney for an opinion. 

“That means there are 23 different legal positions,” Ertman said. 

County Clerk Becky Hadlock reported that the discussion among the clerks across the state has focused on whether the designated public records person is responsible for getting the information or for passing along the requests to the departments where the requested records are held and then follow up to be sure the request was fulfilled. 

In his view, Peck said, more than one individual can be appointed, each representing a department. The city approved a resolution, on May 20, appointing Jim Owens, police chief; Robert Munger, fire chief; and Greg James, city clerk-treasurer as the public records officials for their respective offices. 

“That would change if there is a new chief,” Peck clarified later for the News Letter Journal

Weston County Attorney Alex Berger, on the other hand, interprets the bill to mean the commissioners must appoint one individual to receive and fulfill all county public records requests. 

“It would be easier to appoint one than a dozen,” Berger said. “Reading the statute with what I have heard, the county has a countywide person, and I know that pursuant to the statute, you have to have one appointed by July 1.” 

Berger said that the clerk’s records or district court’s records are considered public records and are already available to the public. Other information that can be requested under the Wyoming Sunshine Laws is what the law is referring to, and these are written requests for information. 

“I don’t think this is going to change a lot within the county. It is a matter of someone being in charge of telling people where to go for the records,” Hadlock said. 

Commissioner Tracy Hunt suggested that the law was written to ensure, in his opinion, that public records requests are complied with in the time designated by law. Ertman added that the law is putting the liability all on one person for the requests. 

“The official will be the point of contact. I don’t think people will go to the department; they only talk to the public records person,” Berger said. “I think that official has to follow up with the specific department and make sure the request is met. They say, ‘Here is what I am looking for,’ and once they get the records back, they give it to the person (who made the request). If it is insufficient information, then they go and say, ‘Here is what is wrong.’” 

Commissioner Nathan Todd said that he wants more information on the “point of contact” and what that individual’s responsibilities will be. 

“It is just merely to assist or is it to burden all responsibility?” Todd said. “That would be like creating another job for that person.” 

Todd added that the bill is “very vague,” noting that it does not even clarify that the person needs to be an employee of the county. 

The commissioners, after
a lengthy discussion, appointed Berger as the “provisional” county public records facilitator. 

Berger said that the various districts, such as the school district and hospital district, would be their own political subdivisions and required to appoint their
own public records person. Hunt suggested that a memo be sent to the districts in the county explaining this new requirement. 

Ertman suggested that the county put out some sort of statement saying that more information is needed on the statute. 

“We do it because you told us to, but we expect more information immediately,” Ertman said. 

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