CHEYENNE – Lawmakers proposed clarifications to the new ombudsman position and amendments to the Public Records Act on Friday during the second day of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee meeting.
The changes include adding descriptions to the ombudsman’s role, which include mediating disputes between a government agency and public records requester, and providing interpretation and training on the Public Records Act.
The proposed bill was passed by the committee and will be presented for consideration during the 2020 budget session, which begins Feb. 10.
The Public Records Act amendments also originally included changes to personnel salary disclosure. Instead of listing the public employee’s name and what they make, the change would have just named the employee’s classification or employment category with its salary information.
After debating the issue, the committee decided to take out that new language.
“I’m hesitant to fiddle with this law for two reasons – it sends a message that if you don’t like a law ... it’s only been in place for four months; we don’t even know what the ramifications are,” Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, said. “While I fully appreciate the comments that were made ... this is a dangerous place for a committee to go.”
He also added that by changing the law so soon, it sets a precedent that says lawmakers did “crappy” work last year.
The proposed changes to the public employee salaries provisions of the law came from groups such as the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
“If you’re at a certain level of the organization, that’s part of what you buy into,” said David Frazer, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.
“But a lot of the employees that are farther down in the (organization) chart, I think that if the position is published and the public then knows, the taxpayers know, it isn’t essentially associated with the name of the street sweeper,” Frazer said.
Jeremiah Rieman, executive director of the County Commissioners Association, said his group came forward because they want consistency across the state when it comes to publishing names and salary data. He said the requirements are different for school districts, city governments, county governments and more.
For example, state employees aren’t required to have their salary information published – but it is available with a public records request.
Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, said the key point is that public employee salaries are funded by taxpayers’ money, and publishing it is part of the transparency process.
Cassie Craven, speaking on behalf of the Wyoming Liberty Group, told lawmakers that not publishing names with salaries is a matter of accountability, but the issue runs much deeper than that.
“Wyoming is a state that at least is alleged to have a gender wage gap,” Craven said. “And how will you ever know if that is true if you don’t know who is getting paid what.”
She said by not disclosing names, it can create a liability issue for Wyoming when it comes to pay-discrimination issues and may have the potential to invite frivolous lawsuits.
She also took issue with the word “advice” in the description of an ombudsman role. If the ombudsman was a lawyer, they would risk potentially entering into a client-attorney relationship with the person they are advising on the Public Records Act.
If the ombudsman wasn’t an attorney – which the current ombudsman, Ruth Van Mark, is not – then they risk further ethical complications of a non-attorney potentially giving legal advice.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, proposed an amendment to take out the word “advice” in the bill, which was approved.
Craven also cautioned the committee against accidentally mixing separate areas of the law: public notices and public records.
She said the Public Records Act amendments included language about noticing the public about salaries and referenced the public notice law. She suggested handling the two issues separately so they both get the attention they deserve and the law isn’t muddied.
Tara Evans, University of Wyoming general counsel, spoke about the time frame laid out in the act for fulfilling public records requests. Since the act went into effect four months ago, there is a new requirement to provide records within 30 days.
She said she has a public records attorney dedicated to handling public records requests, and the university gets about 200 requests a year. For the most part, she said, the university can get the records to a person within 30 days without a problem. However, for the more extensive records requests, she said she needs more time.
Ultimately, though, no changes were made to the time frame.