Lawsuit filed against county commissioners

By: 
Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

The News Letter Journal and Weston County residents Karen Drost, Raymond Norris and Patricia Baumann have filed a petition for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, and for access to public records, against the Board of Weston County Commissioners in the Sixth Judicial District Court. The suit was filed on April 19 by attorney Bruce Moats of Cheyenne. 

The petitioners seek information related to actions taken by the county commissions in Niobrara, Goshen and Weston counties when by secret ballot on Oct.  19, 2021, they chose a replacement for Rep. Hans Hunt, House District 2. Hunt had resigned to take a job with Sen. Cynthia Lummis.   

The legality of the secret ballot has since been questioned by Drost and other county residents. 

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” said Bob Bonnar, the News Letter Journal’s publisher, when asked why the paper decided to be a party in the suit.

According to News Letter Journal owner Robb Hicks, this case comes down to the public’s right to know. 

“To know how and why decisions are being made. The county commission was elected to serve the people of Weston County, not rule over them,” Hicks said. “They are not above the law. More important, this case is about election integrity.” 

He noted that the people have no idea how the decision to replace Hunt was made or how any of the individual commissioners voted. 

“And that’s just plain wrong,” Hicks said. 

The newspaper and the individual citizens are petitioning the court for a declaratory judgment that the secret ballot to replace Hunt was in violation of the Public Meetings Act, W.S. 16-4-401 et. seq., and for access to the public records regarding the secret vote by the individual commissioners, pursuant to the Public Records Act, specifically W.S. 16-4-203(f)(i). 

“We thought it was important to involve some of the Weston County voters who have been questioning this action and being rebuffed by their own elected officials. While we feel that it is our responsibility to bring such a lawsuit, it is really more about the voters than the newspaper, and we are grateful to those who have agreed to tell their stories and stand up for open government,” Bonnar said.

Petitioners (plaintiffs) say that the Wyoming Public Meetings Act states that “no action of a governing body of an agency shall be taken except during a public meeting following notice of the meeting in accordance with this act.” 

“Voting by secret ballot is an action as defined by the Wyoming Public Meetings Act,” the documents state. “Voting by secret ballot cannot be reconciled with the mandate that all actions be taken at a public meeting. Voting by secret ballot is no different than voting behind closed doors — either way the purpose of informing the public about the process of decision-making is circumvented.” 

“The parties have genuine rights at issue in this matter. The Plaintiffs have an interest in how their representatives voted in stepping into the shoes of the public and selecting their representatives in the Wyoming State House,” the case filing continues. 

The petitioners’ second claim pertains to the public records related to the discussion and/or action taken by the commissioners in adopting the rules to govern the selection process, including the use of the secret ballot. 

“The ballots cast by each commissioner were made available to Plaintiff Drost for examination on the day of the vote, but they do not identify the commissioner marking the ballot,” the documents state. “Therefore, there is no way to ensure that no mistakes and/or changes were made to the ballots.” 

The documents, including the selection procedures, were created by county commissioners and are thus public records subject to public disclosure under Wyoming law, the suit claims. 

“The failure to provide the records regarding the selection process and the ultimate vote is a violation of the right of the Plaintiff to inspect the requested records,” the documents state. “The failure to identify the commissioners marking each ballot frustrates the purpose of the Public Records Act, and also the purpose of the Public Meetings Act to ensure that the public has access to the process of decision-making. Again, without such knowledge, the public has no way of holding the commissioners accountable, either positively or negatively, for their decisions regarding the selection process and the ultimate selection of Hunt’s successor.” 

The declaratory judgment requested by the paper and individual plaintiffs, according to the documents, include a judgment that voting by secret ballot is contrary to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act and an order that the defendants refrain from voting by secret ballot in the future. 

“Therefore, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the secret ballot in the selection of Hunt’s successor violated the Wyoming Public Meetings Act, and an order requiring the commissioners to identify the ballot each filled out and/or identify which candidate for whom they voted,” the documents state. 

The documents also request that after the hearing, an order is filed directing the commissioners to provide public records — including all written communications both physical and electronic — regarding the reasoning for and the adoption of the use of secret ballot, and the response given to individuals and entities that have requested this information. 

“We think it is important to have a court answer this question, or elected officials will be empowered to use secret ballots anytime they feel like it. This is a dangerous precedent, and we are eager to have a judge rule on this issue for the people of Weston County and all of Wyoming,” Bonnar stated.

“We just aren’t comfortable with the commissioners and county attorneys saying this action was legal simply because they say so. We want a court to consider this important matter,” Bonnar said.

 

News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

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