CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming state government agencies will charge the public for staff time required to respond to requests to inspect electronic records under a rule Gov. Matt Mead approved this month.
Media and public interest groups had opposed the rule during its development by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information. The groups say it will stifle public scrutiny of government operations and expenditures.
“The public now has a roadblock in its way when it comes to see what the government is doing with its money on its behalf,” said Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association. The Associated Press is a member of the group.
Angell noted that Wyoming law long has prohibited charging a fee as a condition of inspecting a public record. “They knew that any fee that could be charged to people to simply look at a public document would discourage people from participating in their democracy,” he said Thursday. “And that is, in the end, what I think these rules will do.”
Dean Fausset, director of the Department of Administration and Information, said Thursday the rule currently applies only to his agency but said other state agencies will also adopt it.
Under the rule, state agencies will charge for staff time required to gather, reproduce and make available for inspection government email and other information in electronic formats. It doesn’t apply to requests to inspect paper files.
Agencies will start billing after the value of staff time spent responding to a records request exceeds $180. The fees would range from $15.50 an hour for clerical time up to $40 an hour for professional staff time necessary to respond to request. Copying fees are extra.
The Legislature called for the rule to be drafted two years ago. Top lawmakers say it’s necessary to address massive information requests that often command excessive state agency staff time.
“My opinion is that it will require that requesters who request public records from state agencies will be encouraged to fine tune or be more specific with their requests, rather than doing a shotgun approach,” Fausset said, adding he doesn’t believe it will preclude the public from getting access to records.
Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said he expects that most public requests for electronic information will be handled quickly and without great expense.
“The problem is where we have people doing massive requests, and asking for it to be printed, and asking for it to be color printed, and they come in and they have a stack of documents three feet tall, and sometimes they don’t even show up,” Nicholas said Thursday.
Mead said in a written statement Thursday that the rule brings uniformity across agencies for the cost associated with staff time needed to search and review the records. “The same access to records exists after the rule as before the rule but costs will not be disparate,” he said.
The Wyoming Supreme Court is weighing a challenge to the practice of government entities charging for inspection of electronic records. The court heard arguments this summer on the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s appeal of a district judge’s ruling that it was permissible for the school district to charge the newspaper for staff time to compile email records concerning school board members.
Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne lawyer representing the newspaper, said Thursday he believes the new state rule has the potential to hurt public access to information more than exempting a new class of information from public review outright.
“These are the records that everybody agrees are public and you can get,” Moats said. “This affects your ability to get it.”
Governing Magazine reported last year that charging a fee for producing a public record isn’t common and that the practice varies across the country. It reported that fees include $15 per hour in Rhode Island to $30 in Colorado. The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that public bodies there could charge to retrieve records but that the state Legislature banned such fees last year, it reported.