Wing Opinion

Open records?

College's proposed public record rule too unclear to clarify state statute

Countless people haven’t the slightest idea how to go about obtaining a public record. That is, until they need one. A presidential severance settlement…a review of a terminated program…a detail of travel expenses.

Wyoming statute concerning public records is the law, of course, but all community colleges within the state are also required to create their own set of rules. The rule must directly correspond with the state statute, but colleges are also allowed to form their own guidelines in certain areas of the policy. These guidelines may be set forth at the college’s discretion. It is not permitted, however, for a college to slip in rules that do not comply with the Public Records Act.

Laramie County Community College has proposed a rule involving public records at the college and is seeking public comment on that proposal through Sept. 26. A public hearing will follow, and trustees must vote to approve the rule.

“We can’t do anything that’s not allowed; that’s not in the Public Records Act. There are no rules that LCCC can make up,” said Tony Reyes, the LCCC attorney.

However, the proposed rule is so unclear and complex in certain areas Wingspan urges the trustees to send the rule back for revision. Specifically, we are concerned about:

  1. Guidelines for requesting a record.
  2. Designation of the vice president of administration and finance as the sole custodian.
  3. Lack of guidance involving the turnaround time for approval of requested records.
  4. The process regarding producing identification for all records requests.
  5. Authority given to the custodian regarding the access to inspect documents.

According to Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., it is important for any institution to have a policy on processing records requests because not everyone at the college level is a legal expert. Everyone should understand how to respond if someone shows up requesting a public document.

“Most of the time, these things can and should be handled informally, so you don’t want the policy to be so confining that people don’t feel free to informally honor requests as they’re accustomed to doing,” he said.

Unfortunately, the proposed LCCC public record rule doesn’t seem to be as clear as it should be.

Some areas are confusing; certain issues may not be relevant enough to put into the rule, and there are sections that could most certainly be reworded for clarity. For example, the procedure for going about how to get public documents seems confusing.

“Overall, I would be concerned that this policy seems to impose too much formality and bureaucracy over the process of getting records,” LoMonte said.

Single person to handle all public record requests deemed unreasonable

Possibly the biggest issue concerning LCCC’s rule is the designation of the official custodian. In the state statute the official custodian is defined as any officer or employee of the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision thereof, who is responsible for the maintenance, care and keeping of public records, regardless of whether the records are in his actual personal custody and control.

Being the official custodian is a big job in itself. At LCCC, the official custodian is also the vice president of administration and finance.

“The idea that a person who wants something very basic and very simple, like the agenda for a meeting, needs to make an appointment with the vice president and show up with a picture ID and sign a log just seems like overkill,” LoMonte said. “That can't possibly work in practice. Making the vice president the official records custodian seems like a potential bottleneck because that clearly is a busy person with a lot of other responsibilities.”

In LCCC’s rule, Section 5 g states that the official custodian shall determine the amount of time reasonably necessary to respond to a public record request. Considering the official custodian is also the vice president of administration—someone who has many other responsibilities—it is difficult to agree that this person is the best fit for the job of official custodian. The idea that one person will produce an approval in a timely manner, especially if he/she has a half a dozen other requests to look at as well, seems impractical.

In the proposed rule, there is no specificity as to whether all documents need approval or only some. Whether it is all documents or if it is only original documents, addressed in Section 5 c, it should be stated.

LoMonte said: “If a person shows up at the student affairs office and asks to see the agenda for a meeting, and the agenda is sitting right on the desk in front of the dean of students, then it would be unreasonable to require the requester to make an appointment to see the vice president of administration to review that document. The key to all public records laws is that access must be ‘reasonable,’ and if the document is literally sitting right there on the desk, then making a person wait three days while the vice president makes time on his calendar would not be reasonable. Surely the college can't intend for the policy to actually work that way, but they ought to say so in writing.”

LoMonte said it would be a great idea to put a limit on the turnaround time for fulfilling requests rather than leaving the time frame open to the discretion of the custodian. “Having an open-ended deadline to comply is an invitation for abuse because the average person will not have the resources to take the college to court if the vice president decides that 60 days is a ‘reasonable’ time to give out a copy of a document that is readily available,” he argued.

Jim Angell, the executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, also agreed that appointing the vice president to be official custodian is unreasonable. To have one person in charge of all public record requests is somewhat impractical. Angell suggested it could be made easier by letting each department handle its own public documents.

Stated purpose for requiring identification for all open record requests unclear

Another point Angell addressed was Section 5 h, which states that persons picking up records will be required to provide valid identification and identify the documents requested in the official custodian’s log. The question is why?

According to attorney Reyes, the purpose of requiring identification was mainly for security purposes for LCCC. Handing out documents to a person who didn’t make the request, then having the requester try to pick them up and suddenly the documents are gone can cause problems. It is understandable to a point that documents shouldn’t be given to just anybody in this instance, but how often will a random person walk in to pick up records that he himself didn’t request?

Another question that rises is if a person walks in and asks for a public record that should be readily available, what reason is there to show valid identification? Tying into what LoMonte said, if the document should take no approval and is sitting on a desk, the document should be handed over and without having to show identification. But this is not clarified in the proposed rule as to whether all requests need approval. That is where the confusion lies. According to Angell, this is definitely an area that needs to be explained in Section 5 h.

Requesting documents like credit card records may take some time to produce and may need the official custodian’s approval. This is understandable with more important documents. Even then though, the decision of whether the documents are given to you lies in the hands of the official custodian. Whether the document/s may be relevant to the subject matter being investigated also lies in the hands of the official custodian. For example, it doesn’t seem right that the official custodian should have a say-so in what may or may not be important in a journalist’s story or a taxpayer’s inquiry. The decision of whether it is relevant should be solely the researcher’s.

Several improvements can and should be made to the LCCC rule. It could be useful to reconsider these rules to make them more flexible or at the very least insert some guidance so that people can understand that readily available records should be handed over without delay, rather than funneling all requests through the vice president. This would lessen the load of the vice president and also be an easier routine for requesters.

The college’s rule involving public record requests should guide both the custodian and the public in implementing the Wyoming Public Records Act. However, the proposed rule is so unclear, not only does it not accomplish this objective, but it also serves to muddle the process further.