Time will tell how the 9th District Court will rule in the case of Sandy Ress v. Teton County Hospital District Board of Trustees, and we will reserve judgment until its adjudication.
But we agree with Ress on one point: The best possible outcome of this lawsuit would be for the hospital board, lawyers and public information specialists to craft a set of best practices for any and all Wyoming boards to meet both the letter and the spirit of the state’s open meetings laws.
Although the item Ress is suing over may seem small, the principle of open government is vital. Open meetings laws are designed to ensure that people we elect to public office are making the best possible decisions with the public funds and power they hold.
The concept is so important to Americans’ rights and to ensuring a democratic society that newsmakers and news media around the country dedicate this time each year as Sunshine Week. Governments, journalists, editors, educators and other stakeholders highlight the importance of open government, public oversight, freedom of information and ensuring that government occurs in the daylight, not in the shadows or back rooms.
Wyoming law explicitly calls out in Statute 16-4-403 that “communications outside a meeting, including but not limited to sequential communications among members of an agency, shall not be used to circumvent the purpose of this act.” That means that one member of a board shouldn’t be straw polling others in phone calls or texts to deliberate outside the meeting, which has been known to happen on local publicly funded boards. And they shouldn’t be texting each other, essentially having a private conversation, during the meetings either, as Teton County commissioners were observed doing in 2020.
Discussing matters in technically legal committees — which can contain a couple of board members and meet privately — and then rubber-stamping decisions in public board meetings is a pattern of operation that deprives the public of any oversight.
Boards shouldn’t be taking action without giving the involved parties a chance to understand what’s underfoot, as happened when Teton County commissioners removed a library board member without notice or discussion, only later to have the decision overturned in courts.
These rules should go to the very top of government, including the Wyoming Legislature, which has thus far exempted itself from open meetings law. It’s ridiculous that lawmakers stop a video live stream “to get organized” and discuss things privately.
Hospital trustees have called Ress’ lawsuit baseless and said he is hurting the hospital. But it raises the question: Can you help a hospital by attacking it?
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