CHEYENNE, Wyo. — News reporters on urgent deadlines will need to file a time-consuming public records request in order for the Wyoming Department of Corrections to answer any of their questions after the agency lays off its public information officer, a state corrections official said Tuesday.
The policy change set to take effect with the spokesman’s Oct. 8 departure has raised questions about how the department plans to quickly inform the public about urgent safety matters such as escaped inmates or the spread of COVID-19 at correctional institutions.
Public records requests in Wyoming usually take several weeks to months for state agencies to fulfill, assuming they aren’t denied for some reason.
The likely information delay at the department is among the first effects of 10% cuts at Wyoming agencies recently approved by Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, that have led to the elimination of 165 positions in the corrections system alone.
Wyoming has been struggling to adapt to a one-third drop in state revenue due to weak markets for coal, oil and natural gas — three of the state’s key resources and pillars of its economy — and because of the coronavirus. Another round of 10% cuts may be needed to make up the over $1 billion shortfall, Gordon has warned.
The corrections department for decades has had a public information officer on staff who answers most news reporter questions within a day or so if not right away.
With the spokesman’s departure, all reporters with questions will be referred to the department’s public records request form online, Deputy Administrator Paul Martin said Tuesday.
Wyoming law requires government agencies to acknowledge public records requests within seven business days and provide documents within 30 days unless there’s good reason for delay. The law can keep requests from dragging out but isn’t intended for urgent matters, such as informing the public about a dangerous inmate at large.
The department won’t be able to commit to up-to-the-minute or even end-of-the-day news deadlines under its new policy, Martin said.
“It depends on volume. Obviously, we’ll handle things as they come in. And it depends on workload. We really don’t have a dedicated person for that function, either. It’s a collateral duty. But we’ll comply with the statute to the greatest degree we possibly can,” Martin said.
The Associated Press got no reply Tuesday after filing an online records request asking whether any Wyoming inmates were at large. The unanswered request also sought an update on coronavirus in Wyoming’s corrections system and details about the 165 corrections jobs being cut.
The public’s right to know about government business shouldn’t be obstructed by state budget cuts, said Kevin Olson, publisher of the Jackson Hole News & Guide and president of the Wyoming Press Association.
“If this is a trend in state government, we should be very alarmed and begin in earnest to investigate government operations more than ever,” Olson said in a statement.
Gordon ran for governor in 2018 in part on promises to increase state transparency. He has supported an effort to post more state spending information online and has held regular, live-streamed news conferences on the state’s COVID-19 response.
The governor’s office will work with the corrections department to “find a solution” to get information to reporters on deadline, Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman said.