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Prying information out of Cheyenne

Apr 28, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

Give it a try if you like, but don't expect much.

Test pilot Chuck Yeager turns to his friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley and says, "Well, I'll tell you somethin' -- it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did all right."

It was one of the climactic scenes of the "Right Stuff," addressing the criticism leveled at astronaut Gus Grissom, who was blamed for the sinking of a Mercury space capsule after splashdown in the ocean in 1961. (Grissom later was cleared of any error that could have caused the malfunction.)

It clearly portrayed the difference between NASA's fledgling space flight program and the top-secret efforts being made simultaneously in the Soviet Union. Grissom's problem was in full view, for all to see and judge.

The image of transparency, openness and access has long since left government agencies. Whether it is a claim of "national security" for even the most mundane federal information requests, or the phony claims of "executive privilege" or "legislative privilege" that now permeate the governor's office and the Wyoming Legislature, it is clear that government is growing secretive and distant from the people.

As a school technology director I encountered the "national security" block several times. How national security could be tied to a child's test score, or how a Northern Arapaho student's name had to have a special "3" included as vowel to correctly spell the name was beyond imagination. But it did do one thing, it kept the bureaucrat from having to do any work or answer any questions.

Over the last few months I've grown adept at filling Freedom of Information Act forms with various agencies of the governor's office and Wyoming House Speaker Tom Lubnau. The process begins with a phone call, followed by an e-mail with no information being offered in either venue. Escalation to a formal request begins with newspaper letterhead mailed directly to whichever bureaucrat who was delaying public information in Cheyenne.

The funny thing is that each of the seven Freedom of Information requests I filed were never answered by the party I filed them with. Each time the governor's personal attorney or some member of the Wyoming Attorney General's staff responded. None of the responses every produced any information.

The request for e-mails between Lubnau and other members of the good ol' boys club in the House and Senate was denied based on a vague claim of legislative privilege. Evidently the machinations, correspondence and conversations between elected officials are privileged, and the people, particularly the press, have no right to know what these politicians are doing behind the scenes.

It reminds one of the trends in some school boards of jumping immediately into executive session for almost every transaction. After a few hours a member pops his head out of the meeting to see if anyone is left in the audience. When the room is vacant or nearly so, the board reconvenes, votes without any discussion, and then adjourns.

That's not how democracy is supposed to work. Our system was designed to represent constituents publicly and to debate issues in an open forum

Attempts to get the governor's office to answer questions concerning federal contracts with the Wyoming Department of Education during the illegal tenure of appointed director Richard Crandall were summarily dismissed with the claim that the governor was not the custodian of those records.

That brought up an interesting paradox. The governor signed Senate File104 into law in a very public ceremony 15 months ago. He was, strategically, surrounded by women from various state agencies as he signed it in a clear attempt to show that this wasn't the action of a group of good ol' boys against an elected female official. He then gave the Wyoming State Board of Education, a board appointed entirely by the governor's office the task of hiring a new director. In a miraculous event, the board selected Crandall, an associate of Hank Coe, one of the prominent members of the good ol' boys club and a prime antagonist of State Superintendent Cindy Hill.

Mead selects the board, the board selects Crandall, but Mead isn't the ultimate custodian of records kept under Crandall's department. Does the military work that way too?

A call to the Wyoming Attorney General's office produced the same circular logic, but one of the attorneys on staff finally said that sending an information request to Crandall might open the door.

I received an e-mail, the first one with specific information of any kind, from the governor's personal counsel, Carol Statkus, indicating that the information I sought would be available from the Department of Education and that the governor's office only had minimal information on the subject.

I suspected something else had take place. Sure enough, just before the e-mail arrived, Judge Campbell ruled to reinstate Cindy Hill to her constitutionally elected position after 15 months of legal gymnastics.

In the course of Hill's tenure she has answered every question, passed every challenge, and survived nine separate audits and investigations. The governor's office once complained she had sent too much information. Not something you have to worry about from his office or his friends across the way in the Wyoming House.

So we have a dichotomy in Cheyenne. One side makes spurious claims, spiced with vague statements and laced with innuendo, while the other openly answers every question in a forthright manner.

Which government do you prefer?

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.