Legislative leaders voted Tuesday to livestream 20 committee meetings in 2018 held between legislative sessions. But they hesitated, for the moment, to back a bill that would place a recording of every legislative committee meeting online for the public.
The Management Council, which is made up of House and Senate leaders from both political parties, voted unanimously to advance a proposal by Wyoming Public Broadcasting to livestream 10 meetings next interim period. They also voted to ask the Wyoming Enterprise Technology Service, the state’s principle IT agency, to manage the livestreaming of another ten meetings. The council will decide later which committees to livestream. The two proposals for the livestream pilot projects do not require a statutory change, Legislative Service Office staff said.
The Legislature hasn’t backed livestreaming until now, sparking calls for such action from government transparency advocates.
The 10 meetings from Wyoming PBS will cost taxpayers $9,000, according to the television station’s proposal. The 10 meetings from ETS should cost around $3,000, although some lawmakers predicted that number will go up. For Wyoming PBS to livestream all the interim meetings, however, would cost more than $120,000, as the station would have to hire more staff.
The Management Council also voiced strong support for placing recordings of all legislative meetings, which are already produced by LSO staff, online. Unlike livestreaming, simply uploading the recordings after the meetings to an accessible place online would require no new public funds.
But on the cusp of a vote to throw their considerable weight behind a bill to make that possible, lawmakers hesitated. Doubt arose after Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss worried about potential effects on confidentiality privileges that exist between lawmakers and the LSO attorneys who write their bills.
The concern arises from a 2005 statute that makes discussions between lawmakers and the LSO staff attorneys who write their bills confidential. LSO staff worry such discussions — made in the course of a public meeting — could be picked up on recordings, LSO director Matt Obrecht said.
If a citizen requests a recording of a legislative committee meeting — which is a public record — LSO staff listens to it to ensure it contains no confidential material before fulfilling the request. Listening to hours of meeting audio takes considerable staff-hours. The most practical way for LSO to proceed is through passage of a bill to make anything picked up on a recording exempt from confidentiality statutes, so staff won’t have to censor recordings before posting them online.
Last session, a bill to provide that exemption passed unanimously through the House of Representatives but died on its final vote in the Senate. Transparency advocates want the management council to sponsor the bill anew for the coming budget session. Doing so would be a backup to livestreaming, advocates say, and give the public the ability to listen to committee meetings at any time. Committee meetings take place on weekdays, during working hours for most Wyoming residents, and often hundreds of miles from interested constituents.
But Rothfuss, who voted against the bill last session, said he thought the wording of it could remove confidentiality from entire lines of communication about any given piece of legislation. For example, if a lawmaker asks an LSO attorney a question about a piece of legislation he or she was working on, and the conversation was audible on a committee meeting recording, would that make all communications between the lawmaker and the attorney about that bill public record?
The director of the LSO, Matt Obrecht, initially told lawmakers he did not believe it would and that LSO staff would “vigorously defend” their communications with lawmakers. After Rothfuss pressed the point, however, management council decided to table the bill until its next meeting and allow LSO to address those concerns.
Senate President Eli Bebout, echoed Rothfuss’ concerns. He takes any weakening of confidentiality on bill writing “very seriously,” he said.
Bebout also voted against the bill last session, and said worries like Rothfuss’ were what drove his opposition. “If we can’t get it right I’m inclined to be against it again,” he told the council.
The argument that statute should protect a conversation captured inadvertently on a recording that is public record has irked at least one transparency advocate in the past.
“Who’s discussing confidential matters during a public meeting?” Jim Angell, director of the Wyoming Press Association, asked WyoFile when approached on the subject in March. A member of the public could just as easily pick up confidential conversations if using the recorder on their cell phone, he said.
Tuesday, House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly asked how often LSO staff even find a confidential conversation to redact on a meeting recording.
Not often, Obrecht said.