Legislators look at new reason to close public meetings
November 4, 2020
SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee addressed additions to reasons allowing for executive sessions during public meetings in preparation for the 2021 general session. The decisions may provide less access to public meetings.
Current Wyoming state statute allows government entities to hold an executive session on matters concerning discussions with attorneys and law enforcement on matters posing a threat to security of public or private property or threat to the public’s right of access; consider appointment employment, right to practice or dismissal of a public officer, professional person or employee and to hear complaints or charges brought against those persons; litigation; national security; when preparing, administering or grading examinations; when determining release of an individual from a correctional institution; when considering acceptance of gifts from an anonymous donor; when considering land or real estate purchases; when discussing wages, salaries, benefits and terms of employment; when considering disciplinary action of a student or when considering or receiving any information classified as confidential by law.
In Tuesday’s Joint Judiciary Committee meeting, legislators considered adding an exemption to include considering, discussing and conducting safety and security planning that, if disclosed, would pose a threat to the safety of life or property.
Legislators tested the addition with different scenarios and discussions that may or may not be included under the proposed statute change, and Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, challenged the addition in its entirety. Boner noted the first exemption as listed in statute already allows for a governing body to hold an executive session “with the attorney general, county attorney, district attorney, city attorney, sheriff, chief of police or their respective deputies, or other officers of the law, on matters posing a threat to the security of public or private property, or a threat to the public’s right of access.”
Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Byron Oedekoven explained, from his perspective, the need for the bill in the first place.
“For us, that came to light when a sheriff’s office wished to visit with the school district and they were having concern over whether or not an executive session was appropriate, and the media wanted to know what the discussion was about, when it turned out to clearly be about safety and security threats to the building, life and liberty, that was being discussed and there was no statutory authorization for that discussion,” Oedekoven said.
Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell — who has a background in education — said in the existing exemptions law enforcement or attorneys must be present to discuss matters of safety and security in executive session. The new addition — which would be the 12th allowance of executive sessions — would allow governing bodies to conduct any safety and security planning without law enforcement or attorneys present.
Kost also said the lobbyist for the Wyoming Press Association helped write the addition and approved of its nature.
“It just opens a little more freedom to be able to discuss those real sensitive areas,” Kost said. “It’s not intended for just any time you want to talk about cameras or you want to talk about a situation that has been brought up such as a book or something like that that has really nothing to do with it.
“It really is directly related to the security of the people in the buildings,” he continued. “How are you going to get your kids out when there’s some kind of threat; how are you going to make sure to lock down a building so the people that may be trying to...be violent towards this particular building or what have you, have less of a chance to know exactly what you’re doing.”
In Sheridan County, the city attorney and a law enforcement officer are almost always present at Sheridan City Council meetings; law enforcement is often present at Sheridan County Commission meetings; and law enforcement is often present at smaller municipal council meetings. Law enforcement officers do not regularly attend school district board of trustee meetings, though.
Student safety in schools has become a concerning topic with increased school shootings and violent attacks, which in turn results in increased security measures like school resource law enforcement officers and video surveillance. Active and non-active shooter situations grew substantially from the 1970s (around less than five active and less than 20 not active) to the 2010s (five to 10 active and around 50 to 110 not active), according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security Naval Postgraduate School, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The bill draft passed unanimously and is expected to be presented at the legislative session early next year.