RIVERTON—Karl Allred made the motion to enter executive session, an unexpected call for public attendees to leave the facility and bide their time outside of the Central Wyoming Regional Airport until further notice.
Allred, a Uinta County committeeman, incidentally chosen as Wyoming’s interim secretary of state weeks later, explained that the Wyoming Republican Party and its county representatives were going to hear a presentation for their ears only. “There’s some confidential information that’s going to come out,” Allred said, “so I’m gonna move that we move into executive session at this time.”
Political parties have an important role to play in determining the composition of those in public office, but parties are private entities, meaning Allred’s call for a closed-door deliberation was permissible. The ability to exclude participants, however, is not without limits.
The meeting going into executive session was not on the agenda. Cheyenne attorney Drake Hill and his wife, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, were slated to present “the Playbook,” a discussion about past and current efforts to strip statewide elected officials of their authorities.
Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne explained that only voting members of the major state party were allowed to stay, although staff and some others stayed in the room. The state committeemen and women present at the Wyoming GOP’s Sept. 17 meeting unanimously agreed to go into executive session, but later, in that closed meeting, they argued about whether kicking the public out squared with their bylaws.
Closed meeting, open door
A WyoFile reporter, lingering near an open freight-sized door, could hear the mic’d-up executive session, and continued listening in service of transparency to discover not everyone in the room was on board with meeting in secrecy.
At the center of the debate was the state party’s 2022 bylaws, which state: “All meetings must be open to the entirety of the public, except for provisions of executive session in the Parliamentary Authority” — a nod to Robert’s Rules of Order, the standard-bearer for parliamentary procedure.
A motion was made to reopen the meeting to the public, but it was squarely defeated.
Likely incoming secretary of state Chuck Gray, a state representative who’s not a voting member of the party, was the first speaker in the closed session about “the playbook.” He complained about Wyoming’s political insiders colluding “with the media and the Democrats” to “destroy” people like himself.
“This is the same old, same old tactic,” Gray said. “The Democrats, the media and the insiders try to take away the elected duties of a statewide conservative, and it’s never against one of their own.”
The Wyoming Republican Party interfaces with the government. Its voting committee members, for example, are determined through public elections and its bylaws must be submitted with the secretary of state. But at the end of the day, it’s a private organization that can meet in private when its leadership desires, according to University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King.
“If they want to open or close their meetings, they certainly are entitled to do so like any other private organization can do,” King said.
King, who co-authored “The Equality State: Government and Politics in Wyoming,” said private party deliberations aren’t breaking any public meeting laws. He understood the party’s reasoning.
“One NFL team doesn’t invite the other team into its game-planning strategies,” King said. “If I were a member of either party’s central committee, and I needed to have a discussion about what our most recent polling showed and how it was going to affect our candidates or a discussion of our finances, I’d want that to be [shared] on a need-to-know basis.”
Private, not public
In terms of membership, however, political parties don’t have carte blanche latitude to block or grant access, according to attorney and University of Minnesota professor David Schultz, a constitutional law and elections expert. For the purposes of anti-discrimination laws, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled since the 1930s that parties are to be treated as public entities that must accommodate people regardless of race or sex, just like a restaurant, he said.
Still, Schultz agreed with King on the legality of a state party removing the public as a whole from one of its meetings. He illustrates that autonomy in his classes by playing Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit, “It’s my party.” “Under many circumstances, it’s their party,” he said. “They get to do what they want.”
If party members disagree with a violation of bylaws, they have the recourse of suing in most states, Schultz said. In some states the public has that recourse, he said.
Another measure of accountability is the press, Schultz said. In a democracy, it’s journalists’ job to stick their nose as far as they can get it into the Wyoming GOP or any other state party’s business and “bark” when they perceive wrongdoing, he said.
“You’re the only business in America that’s given constitutional protection, because we believe the press has an important role in informing the public,” Schultz said. “We’re taking a couple of entities, parties and the press, that both have important First Amendment roles in our society, and for a democracy to work we’ve got to figure out how to bring those together.”
Robert’s Rules of Order also does not prohibit the Wyoming GOP’s vote to dispel the public from its Riverton meeting after the motion. The 12th and most recent edition of the rules states that a meeting can enter into executive session when required by “rule or established custom” or “upon the adoption of a motion to do so” with a majority vote. Attendance can include members of the body, special invitees and employees, as specified by the body’s rules. Notably, the Wyoming GOP’s bylaws do not include specific executive session rules.
Reached by WyoFile, Carbon County precinct chairman Joey Correnti said the central committee did no wrong by telling the public to leave.
“We’re allowed to do everything we want privately behind closed doors,” Correnti said, “because we are a private organization.”
On paper, access to Wyoming Democratic Party meetings is more restrictive than to Wyoming GOP meetings. Bylaws for the party state that all public meetings shall be open, but only to members of the party. Despite that, Chairman Joe Barbuto said the custom is for access regardless of political orientation.
“It’s not something we would ever enforce,” Barbuto said. “Wyoming Democratic Party meetings are open to whoever wants to attend. Obviously, when it comes to voting, you have to be a member of the state central committee, but otherwise, we’ve always had an open-door policy. That includes the executive committee — when we meet, that’s open too.”
‘Sticking our nose’
When the Wyoming Republican Party invited the public back into the Riverton meeting, the first order of business wasn’t on the agenda. Eathorne, the chairman, spoke in support of a motion to remove the WyoFile reporter present from the remainder of the meeting for listening in on their mic’d up executive session deliberations through the open door. Other members of the party pushed back.
“This guy’s going to write whatever he’s going to write, it’s going to be completely wrong, and we are well-seasoned to dealing with that garbage,” Correnti told his GOP counterparts. “But now we are making a choice to take an action that is a violation of our bylaws.”
Lincoln County GOP Chairman Marti Halverson also spoke against the motion.
“It was basically admitted there was nothing that was said that we … [shouldn’t] share outside of this meeting and executive session,” Halverson said. “What the reporter heard is what we are going to be going out and talking to our parties about anyway. I urge a no vote.”
Halverson’s statement, if acted upon by executive session attendees, would actually be a violation of Robert’s Rules. The “general rule,” according to the guidebook, is that “anything that occurs in executive session” shall not be divulged to nonmembers. A violation is punishable for members, and non-members are “honor-bound not to divulge anything.”
The arguments against retribution and for public access to the remainder of the Wyoming Republican Party’s meeting prevailed. In a lopsided vote, the motion failed and the reporter remained. Although it was within its power to go another route, this time the party stayed true to its bylaws and opted for transparency.
Why we reported this: WyoFile examined the Wyoming Republican Party’s authority to hold private meetings after one of our reporters was accused of eavesdropping on an executive session. While our reporting found that political parties can hold closed-door deliberations, we also believe that the public has a right to know political parties’ stance on transparency, therefore we stand by our decision to continue to listen until forced to do otherwise. -Ed.