I had the opportunity to attend a workshop at the Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) Convention last week in Pinedale. The Wyoming Press Association was having our summer board meeting at the same time the WAM event was going on, so I took the liberty of attending the Wyoming Open Meetings Law workshop. The consultant presented to the audience, whom I presumed were primarily elected officials from cities and towns across the state. The meeting was informative and several of Evanston’s own elected officials were in attendance. The consultant did a good job educating the group on the importance of transparency and open government and that public decisions should be made in open public.
About midway through the workshop one of the younger people in the front asked, “Couldn’t we just post notice of meetings on social media or Facebook?”
Some of the people in the room seemed to nod in agreement. The consultant stated clearly that it didn’t matter; the law reads that this information must be published in newspapers of general record in each county. He added that there seems to be a discussion every two years at the legislature on how much newspapers can charge for legals and that the legislature seems to err on the side of over-disclosure, even in “archaic” print form. He also mentioned that there is some support for the idea that if a city wants to post public notices, it should just do it on its website and whoever wants to see it can go online.
Although I bit my tongue during the meeting, here’s my reply. The Founding Fathers saw such incredible importance in government accountability and transparency that they wrote specific laws to reflect them. Public notices published in newspapers provide a permanent record of government operations, giving people a window into what their governments are doing with their resources. Accountability and transparency come from three pillars, a three-legged stool, if you will. One leg is that government must inform the people of a meeting and do it through an independent source. The second leg is that government has to have open meetings, accessible to all. How much transparency can there be if a meeting is done in some elected official’s basement or in the back room of a restaurant? The third leg upheld by the Freedom of Information Act, is that if someone missed the meeting, they can go back and find out the information. The records must be archived in a permanent format that cannot be changed.
So when there is talk of posting important legal information online or on a social media page, I wonder if elected officials “get it.” Even the biggest corporations in the world are subject to hacking. Countries are even getting hacked. In addition, there are other legal notices required by law to be published in newspapers. Can you imagine the DEQ posting legal notices only on its own website? How about attorneys posting bankruptcies or foreclosures only on their own website? Or cities and counties posting something as simple as bid for new vehicles on their website. That information could be hacked into or changed at any time. Newspapers have been entrusted with the printing of this information for 200 years and here’s the reason: it’s permanent. Newspapers across the state store past issues of the paper. Here at the Uinta County Herald in Evanston we have complete volumes back until 1970. The Uinta County Library has bound copies going back to the 1800s. And, the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne retains copies as well. On the other hand, Facebook may not exist next year.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit with several of our local elected officials and I think they get it. My hope is that the rest of elected officials in the state do as well.
The consultant wrapped up with a statement that I thought was very fitting—when elected officials make decisions without the public’s input, that’s bad; when they discover it, it get’s a lot worse, and the public will hold you accountable.
Mark Tesoro is the president of the Wyoming Press Association and publisher of 5 newspapers in Southwest Wyoming.