The value of transparency


When Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, was planning to leave the Evanston City Council in hopes of unseating two-term Sen. Paul Barnard in the Wyoming Legislature, the Herald asked Schuler about transparency. Wyoming government had recently received an “F” rating in terms of transparency, and the state auditor had been sued for not releasing financial records.

Schuler’s responses focused heavily on the auditor’s office, calling on then-auditor Cynthia Cloud to “open the books.”

Schuler said, in part, “By not being forthcoming, it gives the appearance to the taxpayers of our state that our monies are not being spent wisely. It should not require a lawsuit to release financials that the public has a right to see.”

A retired teacher, Schuler spent 40 years educating and coaching youth in Uinta County. “An ‘F’ wouldn’t be acceptable for our student’s report card,” she said, “so why would we be OK with our state auditor’s office receiving an ‘F’ rating?”

To be clear, it wasn’t just the auditor’s office that received the failing grade, it was Wyoming government as a whole. And it wasn’t the first failing grade the state has seen. Studies from 2002, 2007 and 2008 each gave Wyoming an “F” in transparency.

Schuler said she accidentally co-sponsored HB 201, an anti-transparency bill, last week because she “hit the wrong button.” We can accept that. No one is perfect, and she certainly didn’t claim to be when she told the Herald on Monday that she accepts responsibility for her actions.

“My mistake for sure and I take full responsibility,” she said. “I’m sure it won’t be my last but I will always take responsibility for my screw-ups.”

Yes, she ought to be more careful and double check her work, just as she suggested on Monday. But kudos to her for owning up to it. Plus, her “screw-up” while using the electronic system helped to expose the very problem with anti-transparency bills, such as HB 201, legislation that would surely make some wonder if there needs to be a grade even lower than an “F.”

The bill would allow local governments — cities, towns and counties — to publish public notices, such as expenditures and minutes of public meetings, on their own websites, rather than in local newspapers.

Websites that do not and will not have the ability to keep decades and decades worth of public notices archived properly, if at all.

Websites that can be changed any time.

Websites that can be hacked — even some of the largest companies in the world have been hacked.

Websites that require frequent maintenance.

Websites that will crash.

Websites that many citizens never visit or even know exist.

Public notices have been printed in newspapers for hundreds of years, and laws have required that for a reason: Newspapers are the documented history of cities, towns and counties. They’re permanent. They’re archived and kept in protected rooms, in museums and in libraries. And poll after poll after poll shows that newspapers are the most reliable source of information, especially in small communities.

They don’t vanish. They’re available to anyone. And guess what? They’re already published online — not only on newspaper websites, but The Wyoming Press Association maintains a website at wyopublicnotices.com that includes public notices from all over the state.

In 2017, county officials in Sublette County tried to circumvent Wyoming’s Sunshine Law, a group of statutes aimed at increasing transparency. They cited cost as one of the reasons they didn’t want to publish notices in one of their local newspapers. Cost might be a reason Rep. Don Burkhart, R-Rawlins, introduced this horrible legislation. But get this: In Sublette County’s case, the cost to publish public notices was significantly less than one-half of 1 percent of the county’s budget.

Talk about bang for your buck. The opportunity to be transparent is actually a bargain, and it is invaluable to citizens. The cost of manpower, resources and maintenance would certainly cost more than printing costs if local governments managed their own public notices. And while we hold our local officials in great esteem, let’s not overlook the temptation that could come with policing themselves. Even recent stories in this very publication should caution against lack of oversight and transparency.

Sublette County didn’t get far when they tried to hide their public notices. In a summary judgment, the judge ruled in favor of transparency and newspapers on every count, and the county was required to continue to publish its notices in the newspaper.

Pushes for transparency are coming now more than ever. Why would any legislator support a bill that would point Wyoming in the wrong direction?

Ironically, unless the Senate goes against its historic practice, Schuler’s electronic mistake won’t be erased — not because it can’t be, but solely because of precedent.

Anthony Sara, the legislative support manager for the Wyoming Legislative Service Office told the Herald that sometimes those types of mistakes do happen. And sometimes, he said, bills are changed so radically that sponsors want to take their names off them. “However,” he said, “the historic practice of the Wyoming Senate has been to not allow the sponsor or co-sponsor to remove their names from a bill once introduced.”

Schuler has promised to vote against HB 201 should it pass the House and make it to the Senate. She doesn’t think it will. But anti-transparency bills shouldn’t even be introduced in our F-rated government, let alone make it to committee or, God help us, a floor vote.

Sen. Schuler has been held accountable for her mistake. Now Reps. Burkhart and Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, along with Sens. Bill Landen, R-Casper, and Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, need to be held accountable for brazenly attacking transparency in our great state.

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