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Senate Judiciary Committee Turns Down Public Records Bill

Wyoming Legislature

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down a bill that would have given more public records access to the personnel files of public officials in state and local governments.

The bill would have allowed public records requests for performance reviews of high ranking public positions like college and university presidents, the state superintendent, and city managers.

The bill was borne out of the legal case between the Casper Star Tribune and the University of Wyoming in investigating the termination of former president Laurie Nichols, said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Tara Nethercott.

Some members of the committee had concerns about protecting the privacy of those individuals while local government officials say it would be hard to attract candidates if they knew their personnel files would be public record.

David Fraser, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said his members aren't in favor of the bill.

"It's likely that there are city managers in Wyoming that would choose to leave Wyoming under this," he said. "I think the very best case scenario as it impacts municipalities under this bill is that it will chill the review process between a city manager and his or her bosses: the mayor and city council. I think the very best case is that you'll cut the legs out from under what's a pretty good process, which city managers value."

Rock Springs Sen. John Kolb said he sees both sides, but public officials signed up for a public job.

"Obviously, it's more convenient, not to disclose as little as possible when it comes to issues about personnel," he said. "I understand that, but on the flip side, I think it's the inevitable fact that you are working for the public and the public has a right to know what's going on."

Dale Bohren, publisher emeritus of the Casper Star Tribune, spoke on behalf of the bill, and said this bill isn't looking to invade the privacy of elected or public officials, rather, have a better understanding of those officials' performances.

"We're talking about behavior that directly relates to their job," he said. "And this bill allows for people who have tremendous impact on the people they serve, who are paid I think handsomely with public money, to be subjected to a higher scrutiny, so that we can know how they behave."

Overall, several committee members had concerns about privacy impacts as well as the ambiguity. It failed on a three to two vote.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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