INDIANAPOLIS — Linda Petersen, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, last week wrote to Wyoming governor Matt Mead asking him to veto a bill concerning public records. The bill, HB223 Public Records — Institutions of Higher Education, would conceal from the public the search process for the University of Wyoming president. Society of Professional Journalists President Sonny Albarado also signed the letter.
A court had previously decided that names and résumés of applicants must be public, the letter says. “This bill is an attempt to negate that decision and maintain the shroud of secrecy around the presidential search process. That is cynical politics at its worst, and shows utter contempt for the principle of open government.”
Among the arguments both in favor of and opposed to the bill, Petersen and Albarado cite the importance of the public’s right to know, and they urge Mead to veto the bill. A copy of their letter follows this news release.
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Feb. 12, 2013
Gov. Matt Mead State Capitol, 200 W. 24th Street Cheynne, Wyoming 82002-0010
On behalf of the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation's largest and broadest-based journalism organization, we respectfully ask that you veto HB223, Public Records — Institutions of Higher Education. We believe that should this bill become law, it would undermine transparency in government and erode public trust in the state's higher-education system.
As you know, this bill was drafted in response to a court decision requiring that the names and résumés of the finalists for the University of Wyoming presidency be made public. The court rightfully held that there was a public interest in knowing who was being seriously considered to head the state's flagship university. This bill is an attempt to negate that decision and maintain the shroud of secrecy around the presidential search process. That is cynical politics at its worst, and shows utter contempt for the principle of open government.
Supporters of this legislation have claimed that keeping the names private would ensure that high-quality candidates would apply for the job, as they would not have to worry about their current employers finding out they are considering a career change. We can say, based on experience with states around the country, that this is a groundless fear. We have yet to hear of a university president or other high-ranking official who was fired from his or her post because they were considering a job offer at another school. Nor is there credible evidence that such a policy would deter highly qualified men and women from applying for jobs. You need only look at your neighbor, Utah, which has made the finalists' names for university and college presidents public. Utah officials have not had a problem with attracting well-qualified candidates to serve as presidents of its universities and colleges.
The media request for the finalists' names, which triggered the lawsuit, was reasonable. The journalists were not seeking the names of every individual who put in an application, but rather the people who, after the initial vetting process, were the ones who were getting the most serious consideration for the post. We think that is a reasonable balance of privacy with the right to know.
Allowing the public to see the finalists is good for Wyoming residents and the higher-education system for a couple reasons. First, the public has the confidence to know that the president who will be chosen was truly the best man or woman for the job. It is hard to evaluate if someone is truly the best if you don't know who they were being compared against. Opening the process allows the public to see whether the final selection was made on the individual's merits or as a political favor.
Another benefit to opening the process is it potentially gives the selection committee more information on the candidates. It is quite possible that a member of the public might know something about a candidate that has not been uncovered in the vetting process, and can bring that out for consideration, further ensuring that the one who is finally selected for the post is truly the best candidate possible.
Opening the process also shows respect for the public's right to know. The founding fathers of this country were all too familiar with the horrors of a government that withheld information from its people and treated them as subjects to be ruled rather than the source of power to govern. The people of Wyoming, who are passionate about the University of Wyoming, have essentially hired you and the state government to run the day-to-day affairs. Part of that social contract is being accountable to the public, and allowing them to know how government operates and why certain decisions were made. To withhold vital information is to break that bond, and tell the public that government knows best. That only fosters distrust, which could undermine public support for the university if people believe that something untoward happened in the selection process.
Governor, we respectfully ask that you veto this bill, and let it be known that Wyoming government has the greatest respect for the public's right to know.
Respectfully, Linda Petersen Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee Chair
Sonny Albarado Society of Professional Journalists National President