As public records are increasingly digitized, debate in Wyoming has grown over how to make them available to the public. (PxHere/Public domain)

Two groups of transparency advocates suing former Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud won a surprising reversal Tuesday when the new auditor, Kristi Racines, released years of spending data.

Racines also refunded the groups’ thousands of dollars that Cloud had charged them under new rules that allow state agencies to bill the public for public records, according to a statement released Tuesday by the groups.

Racines’ actions cast fresh doubt on the new rules’ validity as measures are taken in the Legislature to boost state transparency.

Two groups, a national transparency organization called Open the Books and a Wyoming group called the Equality State Taxpayers Association, sued Cloud in July 2018 alleging she was slowly dripping out spending data even after the group paid her thousands of dollars to produce six-years’ worth of information.

In a statement Tuesday, the groups praised Racines’ refund of nearly $8,000.

“Cynthia Cloud sought, in our opinion, to unfairly impose costs as a wall to records requests” the statement read. “Auditor Racines would have none of that. She has embraced the public’s rights to records.”

Open the Books first requested the data in 2015, according to the group’s found Adam Andrzejewski. As of last week, the auditor’s office had produced just two years of the data. On Feb. 15, Racines released spending data from 2013-2018, the two groups said.

In January, the groups had threatened to add Racines’ name to their lawsuit if she didn’t produce the records within 30 days. The lawsuit was filed against the State Auditor’s Office, Racines said in a phone interview Tuesday, and she could not comment until it was officially dismissed in court.

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The reversal raises fresh questions about the delay when Cloud was running the office, and rules imposed last year that allow Wyoming agencies to charge the public for public records. Cloud had suggested that production of the records would cost $7,820 and charged the two groups accordingly. They then sued her when her office continued to slow walk production.

But Racines said producing the records cost $180, according to the groups’ press release. Racines refunded them the $7,820 they had paid, the groups said.

Records requests that cost less than $180 are free under the new rules. But the rules gave broad discretion to agencies to calculate a fee estimate, without providing records requestors any avenue for contesting those estimates except by taking legal action.

The rules worried transparency advocates in the state, who said agencies might impose an onerous fee to block production of a record they didn’t want to produce.

Justifying the high costs in a March 2018 letter to the groups from former Deputy State Auditor Sandy Urbanek, the agency said it would have to develop a “special computer program” to compile the list of expenditures the groups wanted.

It would then have to “retrieve the requested electronic data and public records from approximately 9 million data transactions … from the uniform accounting system database,” Urbanek wrote. Then its Information Technology staff and others would have to “compile the data, assemble the data into a report, validate that the extract’s outcome meets the specification of the query, and then review the retrieved data to scrub all confidential information.”

The letter went on to describe the technical process of retrieving the data and how the computer program would need to be overseen by office staff while it was running. It would take IT staff 40 hours to write the computer program and other staff 80 hours to review the data once it was extracted, the letter said.

An attorney would have to review all the spending data as well to weed out anything confidential, according to the correspondence.

Open the Books and the Equality State Taxpayers Association argued the expenditures they requested had all been previously documented publicly on the auditor’s website, but only for 90-day increments.

A bill that just passed the House would give records requestors an opportunity to challenge future fee estimates. Senate File 57- Public records creates an “ombudsman” position in the governor’s office who would take complaints from people who feel state agencies aren’t responsive to their records requests.

The bill gives the ombudsman the authority to waive a records fee. It passed the House Tuesday afternoon. The Senate will now vote to accept or reject the amendments the House made to the bill.

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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