Gillette City Council recently found itself in hot water after an investigation found the governing body repeatedly violated open meetings laws.
According to the Gillette News Record’s report of a comprehensive review released early this month, the city had conducted improper executive sessions — which are closed to the public — conducted meetings without proper notice and improperly utilized personal devices, among other issues.
Shortly after the report was released, new allegations of improper communications on personal devices surfaced.
The report represents a learning opportunity for all elected officials: a chance to reflect and refresh their knowledge on Wyoming’s open meetings and public records law. Government is meant to be of and by the people, so transparency should remain at the center of elected officials and governmental operations.
For those in or considering public service, here’s a quick tutorial.
What’s a meeting?
Wyoming’s law defines a meeting as an “assembly of at least a quorum of the governing body of an agency” to discuss, deliberate or present information regarding public business. It doesn’t matter the manner of the “meeting,” that means group text messages, conference calls, physical meetings or other means. If a quorum is “present” it’s best to err on the side of caution and announce the meeting.
Which meetings are public?
In essence, all of them. State law states that “all meetings of the governing body of an agency are public meetings, open to the public at all times, except as otherwise provided.” There are some instances, outlined in statute, that allow governing bodies to close meetings to the public. How much notice for meetings must be provided to the public?
Governing bodies set their schedules for regular meetings, and they must provide notice to any who request notice of all future meetings of an agency. Special meetings may be called, as well, when at least eight hours notice is given, or emergency meetings may be called with less notice, but any action taken must be reconsidered and acted upon at an open public meeting within 48 hours.
When can an executive session be called?
Wyoming law outlines 11 reasons governing bodies may call executive sessions. Some of the most common reasons include, generally, to discuss matters posing a threat to security; to consider or hear personnel matters; on matters concerning litigation or proposed litigation to which the governing body is a party; matters of national security; to consider the purchase of real estate; and to receive any information classified as confidential by law. The point is the ability to exclude the public is limited, and transparency should be the standard. It’s also important to note the law is written that governing bodies (ITAL)may(ITAL) hold executive sessions closed to the public for those reasons, not that they (ITAL)shall(ITAL) or (ITAL)must(ITAL).
As trust in government continues to wane, the need for transparency and government accountability grows. Both the governed and the governors need to understand the laws outlining open meeting and public record laws — to learn more, read up on Wyoming statutes or find more information at the Wyoming Press Association website, wyopress.org. Most local newspapers also have pamphlets on hand outlining Wyoming’s laws regarding government transparency.