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1851 - The power of information critical to citizens

Not sure if the sun shines brighter in Newcastle than in other parts of the state - but that town’s newspaper publisher Bob Bonnar is all about bringing public activities and expenditures into the light of day.

       As a journalist in Wyoming for almost half a century, I can attest that reporters have been battling some public officials nonstop to make their meetings, their activities and their expenditures public. It has been a long, grueling battle but there is now some hope.

       Bonnar heaps credit on a joint legislative committee that recently passed a bill 8-4, which offers sweeping new ideas for shining public light on public activities. Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) was chair.

       Usually the fights over exposing public activities concern money.  My first serious fight was with the local school district over releasing test scores way back in 1981.

       Here in Lander, we thought we had the best school in the state with highly paid teachers and outstanding facilities.  The high school was famous for its open campus and its 18-credit minimum for graduation.  Kids were enjoying it and everybody else was too.

       My kid brother, Ron Sniffin, who now lives in Cheyenne and is executive director of the Wyoming Education Association, took advantage of it.

       At age 16, he graduated early from the Lander high school and we promptly hired him as Ad Director to sell advertising for the Greybull Standard. Pretty amazing story – ask him about it some time.  But I digress.

Then we tried to find out our school’s cumulative test scores were in the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a national academic test comparing our schools with other schools in the country.

       I had been looking over our daughters’ test scores at home one night and it made me wonder how our school did, as a whole.

       I was stonewalled by the school administration, which certainly me wonder what they were trying to hide?  They truly circled the wagons and my only source of information was the school attorney.

       We finally got the information after hiring our own lawyer to force the school to release the scores. We broke the story that our high school and junior high were in the bottom 25 percent of the country!  The stories created a sensation.

       Pretty soon the Superintendent (who was a very good friend) and the principals were gone.  School board members were replaced.  Graduation requirements went up to 24 credit hours and the campus was closed.

       The parents were irate to read about the horrible scores, as they should have been. And this episode surely showed the importance of transparency. 

       At one point that superintendent complained at a Rotary meeting, which I was attending, that he was a victim of “the power of the press.”

       I had to stand up and explain that, “No, he was incorrect.  What was happening here was the ‘power of information.’”

       And that is what is being discussed right now as this tentative bill goes forward.

       Although the state’s economy is improving, one of our biggest problems is that the people do not know where the tax money that is already being collected is being spent.

       With transparency and open records, the “power of information” will be given to concerned citizens and groups, which will make all our governmental agencies more accountable.

       Publisher Bonnar wrote a fine editorial about the proposed bill, of which part of which is as follows:

“Passage of this bill should provide that motivation, as it allows public officials to be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to produce requested records within the allotted time out of negligence, but more importantly it makes the offense a felony if records are ‘knowingly or intentionally’ withheld from the public.

“Legislators will be hearing how ‘concerned’ government officials are about that provision, and that is exactly why they need to pass the bill. If officials aren’t concerned about what happens when they don’t allow access to public documents, citizens won’t ever have the access they are entitled to. It is time to let the sun shine on public business in Wyoming, and the best way to accomplish that is to go after the officials who deliberately try to keep us in the dark.”

Wyoming is loaded with public agencies at all levels, that are spending the public’s money. And let’s assume that dedicated and honest public servants operate most of them. This bill can help shed much needed light on all of them.  It is long overdue.