A recent Wyoming Tribune-Eagle headline was intriguing. “Embarrassing government records can stay hidden,” described a Wyoming Supreme Court holding that the public records law doesn’t really mean what it says.
What is this thing that public officials have about keeping their work secret from the voters?
The Court’s decision permits public officials to hide public documents upon which they rely in reaching public policy decisions. Having served in both the legislative and executive branches of Wyoming’s state government, I can assure you that these sorts of documents are among the most critical if the public wants to really know why certain decisions were made and just who participated in making them.
That raises a question “Where is an Edward Snowden when we need him or her ?
Edward Snowden became, for many, a pariah, a traitor to his country, and a hunted man in exile. The most powerful forces in the most powerful government in the world issued hunting licenses for Snowden. If anything, he’s become a metaphor for the consequences of severe truth-telling.
Remember the Pentagon Papers? Daniel Ellsberg was the “Edward Snowden” of his day. Ellsberg released them to the New York Times, revealing for the first time that the U.S. had secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos, illegally enlarging the scale of the Vietnam War. The papers also revealed the fact that our government knew the war was unwinnable while they continued sacrificing the lives of young men and women.
For his truth-telling, Ellsberg was charged with several felonies including conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. Those charges were dropped when it was learned that other secret operations under the Nixon administration included burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
Wyoming could use an Edward Snowden or a Daniel Ellsberg.
Admittedly the issues are not so consequential nor the sort of international sensations involved in the classified material Snowden released. The release of Wyoming’s secrets would not send the truth-teller to Moscow, Rawlins or Lusk. Yet they matter.
The court says officials who may be embarrassed if we actually know how they reached a decision and with whom they consulted along the way can hide the truth. The ruling creates a game of cat and mouse. The court sided with cats who fear embarrassment if their deliberations were known to the mice. (Note: That fear hasn’t deterred the legislature form doing some pretty embarrassing things.)
Wouldn’t the objectives of an educated electorate benefit if we knew what went into making the otherwise inexplicable decision to allow the fracking of oil and gas wells in Fremont County, which led to the severe pollution of underground water supplies? The public would likely be shocked to know the candidly partisan matters upon which legislators and the governor agreed in conspiring to deny 18,000 Wyomingites health insurance by refusing to expand Medicaid.
When this and other columns issued public records requests for emails discussing the decision of the University of Wyoming to rid the campus art the energy industry didn’t like, we learned that public officials were saying one thing privately and other things publicly. When that happens, we should know.
Now our Supreme Court has given them protection from public disclosure. If the truth-tellers tell only the “truth” they are required to tell by law and court rulings, the public will never learn the real truth. Snowden and Ellsberg are extreme examples. Their truth-telling violated the law but so did the secret activities of those public officials who were embarrassed by the disclosures.
The impacts must be balanced. History has proved that public officials make better, more accountable decisions when they fear their actions may appear on the nightly news or the front page of a newspaper. Secrecy is an impediment to good government especially when the quality of government depends on a well-informed electorate.
Public office-holders who “fear embarrassment” are in the wrong vocation. But they won’t fear embarrassment if the Wyoming Supreme Court’s word is the last word. Where is an “Edward Snowden” when we need one?