CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee reviewed public record exemptions Wednesday, including a clearer definition of what constitutes a personnel file.
Public Records Ombudsman Ruth Van Mark said she could use more clarity about what is and isn’t included in a personnel file as it relates to public records. Currently, personnel files are considered exempt from disclosure under the Wyoming Public Records Act.
She said she’s had residents and groups requesting information from state or local entities, and those entities are wondering what they are required to turn over when it comes to information about employees. She said she’s had at least three cases where personnel issues have come up.
For example, she said a group requested information regarding any complaints against a police officer.
Van Mark said the police department said whether the officer had disciplinary actions was part of their personnel file and not subject to disclosure under the act. But this raises the question as to what is a personnel file, Van Mark said, adding she hopes the Legislature will provide more clarity.
In another instance, a city employee requested information about themselves from the city. The city then redacted comments made by a supervisor, which Van Mark said she thought should have been included, but the city attorney in that city disagrees with her.
The city attorney is telling Van Mark she can’t review the files under question because it’s confidential information, but Van Mark said the statute clearly gives her the ability to do so. She added that she’s also been working with local government entities to make sure they understand what’s required of them under the law.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said he would think that disciplinary action against a police officer wouldn’t be considered part of a personnel file.
Since October 2019, Van Mark said her office has received 23 complaints, with 21 of those complaints being resolved. Two are currently pending. She told the lawmakers that she’s publishing the findings of those investigations on the office’s website.
Most of the claims her office has received fall into a dispute over what information is and isn’t confidential or privileged – which she’s received 13 complaints about.
Public employee contracts, agreements and documents related to the terms of employment aren’t considered to be part of a personnel file, according to state law.
Tara Evans, University of Wyoming vice president and general counsel, submitted a memo to the committee asking for more language clarity about the exemptions for public records. The memo states that the term personnel file isn’t defined in the statute, “which creates ambiguity for public records officers when determining whether a requestor should be denied the right to inspect a particular record.”
The university also requested clarity on what the statute meant by “sociological data,” “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and “deliberative process privilege.” The university also asked for clarity on whether it is supposed to redact documents versus withholding documents that may contain private information.
Evans said the university gets 200 public records requests a year, and she said sometimes the requests are quick and straightforward, while others are more complicated. She said a clearer definition would be helpful, not because they don’t want to hand something out, but to be clearer on what they’re supposed to hand out.
For example, she asked if disciplinary records are something that fall within personnel files.
Brian Farmer, Wyoming School Boards Association executive director, asked the committee to consider the issue of school safety and security. He asked to have specific exemptions for safety plan protocols, policies and processes added to the law.
He said this exemption would be to ensure school safety, and to make sure that information doesn’t fall into the hands of someone wishing to do harm.