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Saratoga man protests town’s lack of contact emails; state official cites ‘gray areas’ in statute

A couple plastic bags of pennies.
Courtesy of Jimmy Dempsey
Saratoga resident Jimmy Dempsey attempted to pay the public records fee for the list of emails in roughly 15,500 pennies.

Town resident Jimmy Dempsey began his protest because Saratoga doesn’t list email addresses for its officials online.

Mud was being dragged into his neighborhood streets by town vehicles, according to Dempsey, and he wanted to file a complaint with the public works director.

After reaching out to the town clerk, Dempsey was told he’d need to file an open records request for the list of the emails. Later, he attempted to pay the records fee that the town quoted for them in roughly 15,500 pennies.

“I anticipated emailing [the town clerk] and her saying, ‘Hey, just give me a few minutes and I'll get that [list] over to you,’” said Dempsey. “Because it's contact information of public officials. I don't think anybody in this country should have to pay for contact information.”

Charlotte Martinez is the state's public records ombudsman who mediated the dispute in Saratoga. She said she’s encountered similar scenarios in towns across Wyoming such as Chugwater, where local officials can sometimes be slow to provide basic public information.

“A lot of our smaller towns – they're just not living in 2024,” said Martinez. “They don't have the budget to have a website that can be updated regularly.”

The state’s open records act requires readily available records – like meeting minutes or agendas – to be released immediately to the public, but Martinez said that can be challenging if they’re stored on different hard drives or if local leaders have limited experience with technology.

Though she said she disagreed with some of Dempsey’s methods during the dispute, Martinez said she believes he has a point.

“Wanting access to emails and having to pay for emails did seem unreasonable to me,” she said.

One possible solution to the issues around public meetings and records that Martinez said she’s encountered? Expand the state’s Department of Enterprise Technology Services, which provides tech assistance to state agencies, to help towns like Saratoga.

“Most of the time, cities and towns have wanted to do better,” Martinez said. “They're just in a place where they don't have the staff, they don't have the time. They don't have the education as in what legally they're required to do.”

Another potential problem with the open records act, according to Martinez, is that she’s statutorily unable to take any complaints or hold any investigations into how town councils and boards are holding meetings until after they’ve occurred.

“I do think it would be helpful to allow the ombudsman position to investigate those situations as well, to … also have the transparency for those meetings that are supposed to be open.”

The act was last updated in 2019.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

Chris Clements is a state government reporter and digital media specialist for Wyoming Public Media based in Laramie. He came to WPM from KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, where he reported on Indigenous affairs, drought, and local politics in the Four Corners region. Before that, he graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from Arizona State University. Chris's news stories have been featured on KUNC, NPR newscasts, and National Native News, among others.

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