Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon speaks during the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Friday, April 5, 2019, in Cheyenne. Ramsey Scott/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Ruth Van Mark was appointed Monday by Gov. Mark Gordon to be Wyoming’s first public records ombudsman.

She will mediate disputes between agencies and parties requesting information, determine if records are public or confidential and serve as a resource for public agencies that receive records requests.

“I am excited about the opportunity to assist Gov. Gordon in bringing Wyoming state government closer to the people,” Van Mark said in a news release.

The position was created with the passage earlier this year of Senate File 57, which clarified the process for requesting public records. The bill also requires government entities to designate a public records custodian and provide their contact information.

Before the ombudsman, public records disputes had to be settled in court. Bruce Moats, a First Amendment lawyer in Cheyenne, has worked on some of those cases.

“There’s a lot riding on how the first person in this position handles the job,” Moats said Monday.

He said the change has the potential to increase transparency, but it might also extend the amount of time it takes to get information.

Darcie Hoffland, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, said she hopes the ombudsman can create uniform training for the various offices throughout state and local government, as well as public records custodians.

“A lot of people don’t know what they have to do,” Hoffland said.

Hoffland said the position can create dialogue between those requesting information and those providing it. Requests can be too vague or too broad, and she said the ombudsman can help make those requests more productive for both sides.

Van Mark will create a standardized process for resolving disputes, according to the news release.

Public records can be requested by anyone, including journalists, residents, and special-interest groups like county clerks and school boards. If a records request is denied, Moats brought up the point that many individual residents lack the resources to take the case to court.

“I’m hoping that it can help citizens get the records they need when they can’t afford the help,” Moats said.

Hoffland said she hopes this position creates cooperation and keeps these issues out of court.

Gordon decided Van Mark, who was born in Goshen County, is the woman for the job. She got her bachelor’s degree from Bethel University and her master’s in public administration from George Mason University.

Van Mark worked in Washington, D.C., as the minority staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and as the majority staff director for the Subcommittee on Transportation. She also worked as the legislative director for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., for six years.

In the news release, Gordon said, “(Van Mark) is poised to strike the right balance in appreciating the parameters of the Wyoming Public Records Act and appreciating the importance this administration has placed on transparency.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretMAustin.

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