CHEYENNE – After working for nearly 30 years in Washington, D.C., Ruth Van Mark wasn’t expecting to take on a new job in Wyoming. Instead, she was planning to retire back in the state she grew up in.
Then, one day this summer, she got a call while hanging out at her family’s wheat farm in Goshen County.
“This call comes from this undisclosed name and number. I thought, ‘Somebody is trying to sell me a trip to Bermuda,’ so I just ignore it, but it comes again,” Van Mark said. “I answer it, thinking, ‘I’m gonna let this person know I’m not interested.’ Then, lo and behold, it was the governor saying, ‘Hey, would you be willing to apply for this position?’”
A few months later, Van Mark was announced as the state’s first public records ombudsman. In the position, she will settle disputes over records requests, determine the scope of what can be redacted in requests and coordinate with state agencies to make the process for submitting requests more straightforward.
“The ombudsman’s role provides the citizens of Wyoming who are seeking public information an opportunity to get their questions answered without having to go to court if, in fact, they can’t work it out with the agency,” Van Mark said.
The position was created with the passage of Senate File 57 in the spring. Cassie Craven, a lobbyist with the Wyoming Liberty Group, said there was a lot of testimony last session about records disputes between state agencies and citizens that had gone wrong in court.
“We sensed there wasn’t really a lot of communication between those two groups, and it was important to find a solution that would benefit both groups,” Craven said.
In her position, Van Mark will work with state agencies to ensure any person can figure out how to submit an online records request.
“Some agencies have a really great presence on transparency. You go right to it, and they tell you who to talk to,” Van Mark said. “Some others are hidden, and I don’t think it’s by design. I think they just don’t completely understand what the Public Records Act requires of them. So we’re going to try to make it really simple for citizens to make use of this office.”
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he hopes the new position strikes a balance between greater transparency and more realistic expectations for government workers.
“I certainly recognized that maybe our state government wasn’t doing everything it could do to be transparent and be helpful to our constituents,” Landen said. “At the same time, these requests were just rolling in at every angle.”
With Wyoming tightening its budget, Landen noted the difficulty state agencies face spending time on cumbersome records requests.
“We don’t have a lot of excess employees sitting there who can just take on these requests,” he said.
By helping citizens figure out what they’re asking for, the ombudsman will aim to ease the burden on state agencies like the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which handled 764 records requests last year and expects more than 800 by the end of this year.
While many request don’t take much time to complete, DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said the department occasionally gets larger requests, including one that took two years to fulfill.
“When there are those rare occasions where we can’t come to an agreement and reach a resolution, I think the ombudsman will be very helpful with that process,” Guille said.
At least 19 states have statewide public records offices, counselors or ombudsmen, though each state’s setup for the position is a little different. Some states, like Illinois, have public records officials that work for the Attorney General’s Office. Craven, who helped draft the bill creating the ombudsman, said Wyoming’s version of the position was based on several states’ models.
“It was just something we wanted to do, and other states had already done it, so we just wanted to get on board,” Craven said.
A few weeks into the job, Van Mark has been speaking with legislators, citizens and members of the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information to figure out different visions for her role.
Eventually, as part of her role, Van Mark plans to establish a standardized process for resolving disputes that would be based on precedent.
“As things come in, looking at the law, seeing how we can negotiate things, it will start establishing precedents that way,” Van Mark said. “So that next time someone tries to get something from the Goshen County Sheriff’s Office who won’t give it to them, they could say, ‘Oh, well, the last time this issue came up, this is how the ombudsman handled it, so this is the kind of service I’m expecting.’”
After working in the Capitol as a longtime committee staff director and legislative director for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Van Mark said her ability to listen will be key to her new role.
“Working on my experience in D.C., when you’re putting together legislation, or when you’re in Congress, between the House and the Senate, trying to iron out the differences, that’s a good training for something like this,” Van Mark said.
“You have to listen to each side, try to understand where they’re coming from, and then try to find the sweet spot so that everyone can at least walk away from the table thinking, ‘Yes, I got something that I needed.’”