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The cost of transparency

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Sarah Elmquist Squires and Marit Gookin with the Lander Journal, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Sunshine Week

March 10-16 is Sunshine Week, a week devoted to promoting government transparency.

This article is one of several ways we’ll explore what government transparency means in Fremont County and what stands in its way.

LANDER — Last summer, a Lander parent concerned about library policies at the school district mulled a request for public data. But it didn’t take long to find a $500 flat fee for attorneys to review such a request for public school information, plus district fees, and that Lander parent couldn’t afford to know more about the governing body in charge of their child.

It wasn’t the only request for information the school district fielded at that time. This newspaper also asked for records concerning library materials – and potential pornography – housed there.

Former Lander Superintendent Dave Barker gave a quote: $620.

So how much does government transparency cost in Wyoming?

Turns out, it depends on whom you ask.

The Lander Journal asked 12 government units in Fremont County for data under the Wyoming Public Records Act and found that, in some cases, thousands of dollars in fees stand between politicians and the citizens they serve.

In other cases, local governments lifted their skirts for all to see and didn’t charge a red cent.


By the numbers


A dozen Fremont County government bodies were sent public records requests for a week’s worth of emails sent by and to elected officials – and in some cases their highest paid administrator. The resulting price tags ranged from nothing to several thousand dollars to view the data.


Why so much?


For decades in Wyoming, it was free to “inspect” records when a requester did not ask for copies. Local governments were required to provide access to documents without charge.

But a court case eight years ago, Laramie County School District One v. Cheyenne Newspapers, decided that records kept in electronic form should be subject to fees for searching and retrieving them, and the change in law opened up attorneys’ fees for reviewing them, too.

Since public records are rarely produced by typewriters these days, and that court case said even looking at a computer screen meant the government could charge you, it’s been open season in Wyoming when it comes to fees for government data. And what constitutes a “reasonable fee” for such electronic data has not been well defined by the state.




Of the government bodies surveyed, the largest price tag for fulfilling the public records request came from the Shoshoni school district, which estimated that it would cost “a couple thousand” dollars.

The other school districts were all also considerably higher than municipalities or county organizations, with Riverton’s schools tallying $1,791,  Fremont County School District #1 in Lander asking for $950 and School District #2 in Dubois asking for $910.

The city of Lander charged $60 to cover the cost of staff time; the city of Riverton charged $47, $40 of which was for staff time and $7 of which was an optional additional cost to receive the data on a thumb drive instead of sitting in Riverton city hall reviewing the records on a computer.

The towns of Dubois, Shoshoni and Hudson all provided the data at no cost.

None of the cities or towns charged fees associated with an attorney or appear to have felt the need to have a lawyer review the emails before providing them, instead trusting their staff to review the emails for any privileged information.

The Wind River Visitors Council and Fremont County Association of Governments both provided the records at no cost.

But because they don’t host the email servers used by their board members, they only provided the top administrators’ emails free of charge.

WRVC Executive Director Helen Wilson noted the agency’s attorney claimed the WRVC didn’t have to provide board members’ emails. That attorney didn’t respond to an interview request by presstime.

New FCAG Executive Director Tim Nichols provided his own emails for the requested time period.

He pointed out that because FCAG Board members, comprised of Fremont County mayors and Fremont County Commissioner Ron Fabrisizus, similarly use their home government email accounts, it might take more time to fulfill the request. He offered to make his own transparency request for each of those governing bodies, then sort their responses for the newspaper.

The Lander Journal declined.

Through requests with the Riverton, Lander, and Shoshoni mayors, newspaper staff had  already seen most of it. (A different server doesn’t mean there’s no transparency: Just look, as Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith recalled, at Hillary’s emails.)

The emails sent by and to the county commissioners were collected and reviewed by the county’s deputy attorney, Nathan Maxon. Based on the amount of time he spent on the records and the county’s fee schedule, the cost of the records would have been $29.16 – but the county waives the first $50 of any public records request, meaning those records were provided at no cost.

In general, these responses seem to indicate that the majority of government bodies in Fremont County will fulfill public records requests to inspect electronic records at either no or comparatively little cost, with six out of the 12 functionally charging nothing for their records and two charging less than $100. The glaring exception is school districts.




Fremont County School District #25’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment by presstime. Superintendent Jodi Ibach did.

Riverton’s school district initially quoted the price tag for the data at $391, but Ibach explained that was before the district explored the actual attorney cost.

In addition to the nine hours of information technology staff ($270), clerical staff ($46.50) and professional staff ($80) time to gather the emails, it took the district’s attorney ($175/hour) nine hours to review the requested emails.

Even with the district’s policy of waiving the first $180, that brought the total from $391 to $1,791.

The attorney for the Dubois, Lander, and Shoshonil districts, Scott Kolpitcke, said in an interview that based on his experience with these kinds of requests he would expect the actual cost for Shoshoni (initially quoted at $2,000) for roughly 1,500 emails to be closer to Lander and Dubois ($900+).

School districts are custodians of more private data than other governments. In addition to protecting data about employees, they are also tasked with safeguarding data about kids.

It makes for a more confusing mix.

But does it take an attorney, charging $230 an hour, to figure out?

Kolpitcke admitted that many of the districts he advises include lots of staff with master’s and doctoral degrees who are well-informed about how to protect student data.

“Even though you’re right and you have well educated people who are familiar with those laws, they might not have the staff on hand to go through those emails,” he noted.

Even though there may be many staff members at these districts “very familiar with confidentiality,” they might need some backup, he said of his expensive services.

When asked whether the fees assessed by the Shoshoni, Lander and Dubois school districts were reasonable, Kolpitcke said it depends.

He described a recent request for 8,000 emails that he had reviewed that included a bill for several thousand dollars.

“I think it depends on the size of the request,” he said of price tags for government data. “It’s going to depend on the breadth and scope of that request. I think yes, those are reasonable fees.”


Government wholesale


Many of the governments queried had a whole lot of emails to be reviewed, emails that included data that is considered private under the law.

For the city of Lander, which charged $60, City Clerk Rachelle Fontaine described her two hours of work: She used Google Vault, pinned down the 900-plus emails, and it took her two hours to read and pull out the handful that included private data.

For the towns of Dubois and Hudson, it was easy work: The request was just a handful of emails, provided for free and emailed to the newspaper at no cost.

For the town of Shoshoni, the request included 256 emails, provided free.

Staff compiled them on a thumb drive, also at no cost.

The bill for the data, according to Mayor Joel Highsmith, was zero because the public has the right to know.

“I believe in open meetings; I believe the public has the right to know,” he said. “If we have the ability to charge it should be within reason. Not the ability to use the charge as a deterrent.”

Each government unit that charged a fee arrived at it using some kind of fee schedule. Although the exact details of these fee schedules vary, they all involve a fee for staff time.

Some broke this down into different kinds of staff who may be involved in fulfilling the request – such as the Riverton school district, which charges $15.50 per hour for clerical staff time, $30 per hour for informational technology staff time and $40 per hour for professional staff time – and some, such as Lander and Riverton city hall, charged a flat rate for what seemed to be a single individual.

All of the school districts also passed along the per hour rate of their attorney, $230 per hour for Lander, Dubois and Shoshoni and $175 per hour for Riverton.

Municipal governments are required to update their fee schedules annually.

Most recently, the Lander School District made a change from a $500 rate for attorney data reviews to $230 per hour. The Fremont County Commissioners also recently updated the county’s fee schedule; the charge for physical copies of records is $1 per page, in addition to staff time. That fee schedule also includes a waiver of the first $50 for Fremont County residents, which is the reason our request was provided at no fee.


Leaders weigh in


State Rep. Sarah Penn shared her ideas about how local governments should be more transparent during a recent interview regarding the bill she authored that would require local governments to allow public comment during meetings. The bill also outlines how meeting videos and agendas should be maintained.

“They’re grasping at straws to find excuses,” she said about local governments withholding data from their constituents and hiding meeting videos. “The reason I struggle with that is when people are trying to be involved, it has the feeling that they’re intentionally being kept at arm’s length. And that brings up the question: Are they trying to hide something? That’s hopefully not the case, but it makes people feel suspicious.”

A person might make a great data request of his or her local government, but “it’s going to cost you this,” Penn said of using fees to make records inaccessible.

Lander Mayor Monte Richardson said people voted him into office on the promise of honesty in office, and he said transparency is an important piece to that pledge.

“When you start hiding stuff, that’s when you get in trouble,” he noted. “Transparency is very important to the community so they know their local government is doing the best for them. They’re the ones that pay the taxes. We work for them.”

This story was published on March 13, 2024.

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