Court: Airport must disclose records

Earlier opinion overturned, airport must reveal more about proposed $26M purchase.

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — The state’s highest court has overturned a district court opinion and ruled that Jackson Hole Airport must adhere to one of the Equality State’s foremost open-government laws: the Wyoming Public Records Act.
The Wyoming Supreme Court released an opinion Tuesday, with no justices dissenting, shooting down the airport’s arguments for not disclosing records.
“Interpreting the Wyoming Public Records Act as applicable to the board is in keeping with the act’s purpose of maintaining an open and accountable government,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Michael Davis, the opinion’s author.
“Moreover, it avoids the absurd result that would follow if we were to interpret the Wyoming Public Records Act as inapplicable to the board,” the opinion says. “That would mean that if either Teton County or the town of Jackson operated the airport individually, their records would be subject to disclosure, but since they run it jointly, no disclosure obligation would exist. We can think of no policy justification or rational legislative purpose for such a result.”
The ruling has implications for political subdivisions and special districts around Wyoming, from water and sewer districts to hospital boards.
The Jackson Hole Airport Board, which hired the Holland and Hart law firm for representation, argued that it had to answer only to a separate Special District Public Records and Meetings Act. That law, much narrower than the Wyoming Public Records Act, prescribes specific documents and public records that airport joint powers boards and 26 other types of special districts must maintain, but the act contains no language about disclosure and leaves out commonly requested public records such as emails.
Holland and Hart attorneys argued the airport was governed solely by the special districts act, and this spring Ninth District Court Judge Timothy Day agreed.
The case stemmed from a records request from Wilson resident Greg Herrick, who had applied to compete with the airport’s fixed-base operator, Jackson Hole Aviation.
Herrick’s company, Wyoming Jet Center, sought emails, consultant reports and other documents related to the airport’s postponed decision to purchase Jackson Hole Aviation for $26 million instead of conforming to Federal Aviation Administration regulations that generally require accommodating competition at airports that receive federal funds.
Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, who represented Wyoming Jet Center, said he was glad the state Supreme Court overturned the district court’s ruling. (Moats, a public records specialist, occasionally represents the News&Guide.)
“What was particularly pleasing was the court reaffirming that these public access statues are to be interpreted liberally and in favor of the public having information,” Moats said. “This case had statewide significance. If they said that special districts only have to provide records that were on [special districts act] list, documents like emails would be off-limits.”
Moats dubbed the Wyoming Supreme Court the “ultimate guardian of the public’s right to know” in this state.
Part of the Supreme Court’s task in ruling on the case was to determine the intent of the Wyoming Legislature, which passed the special districts act in 2010. Justices found that the act’s narrow focus was about making copies of certain documents readily available for inspection and that it was not a standalone records law.
“We find it clear that what the legislature intended was that the Special District Act would ensure ready public access to a certain narrow set of copies of documents,” Davis wrote in the opinion, “while the Wyoming Public Records Act would otherwise govern the covered entities’ record disclosure requirements.”
Ostensibly, the 2010 special districts act targeted diminutive government subdivisions that might deal with public dollars, but not have regular office hours or could be administered out of a private residence. Jackson Hole Airport is about the opposite of that: The public enterprise has more than $85 million in assets and an annual budget of around $10 million, and a fully functional administrative office.
The airport’s interest in not being governed by to the Wyoming Public Records Act cost it $40,000 in Holland and Hart legal fees. Asked Tuesday what Jackson Hole Airport sought to gain from the case, Director Jim Elwood said only that the airport desired the legal clarity.
“We felt that once we got sued, it made sense to get the legal clarity, and we asked the court system for that,” Elwood said. “It is what it is, and there are no ulterior motives.
“We’re appreciative to the Supreme Court for giving us a path forward,” he said, “and eliminating that ambiguity.”
Jackson Hole Airport is a joint construct of Teton County and the town of Jackson, which appoint its five-person board of directors and approve its budget. Located on 533 acres of leased Grand Teton National Park land, the airport does not use taxpayer dollars for general operations but is a frequent recipient of federal and state grants.
Airport officials have maintained in the past that they are voluntarily committed to the transparency prescribed in the Wyoming Public Records Act. That act, which dates to 1969, doesn’t define which documents must be made public because it assumes all government records are public.
Elwood said that, to his knowledge, the airport has never withheld any document that doesn’t fit a Wyoming Public Records Act exemption.
“And we certainly won’t in the future,” he said.
Elwood and Moats were at odds about what effect the Wyoming Supreme Court’s ruling would have on the Wyoming Jet Center’s records request. While that request was partially fulfilled and some records were produced in 2017, other documents were denied — and the airport refused to provide a “log” the Wyoming Public Records Act requires that summarizes their contents.
Elwood’s take was that the airport now must produce only the log of withheld documents — meaning that all applicable documents about the Jackson Hole Aviation purchase were already released.
Moats saw it otherwise. It’s difficult to say, he said, what will be unveiled, when there is no log detailing what was withheld.
“I don’t know what else might be out there,” Moats said. “We should be able to learn more information about how the airport administration and board handled the Jet Center’s request to bring competition to the airport through a second FBO, which was ultimately rejected.”
At the least, Moats anticipated acquiring a consultant’s report that weighed the pitfalls and benefits of acquiring Jackson Hole Aviation versus opening a second FBO. The airport has concealed that document from the public, arguing it contained proprietary information about Jackson Hole Aviation.
“I don’t know how a consultant’s report would be exempt under the Wyoming Public Records Act,” Moats said.
The other portion of Herrick and Wyoming Jet Center’s dispute with the airport still isn’t settled. Moats and airport attorneys will exchange oral arguments Jan. 31 in Teton County District Court in a lawsuit about whether the airport illegally used revenue bonds to purchase Jackson Hole Aviation. This litigation has stymied the $26 million sale, which was set to close last May.
Wyoming Jet Center’s Herrick said Tuesday that he’s eager to see what the 1 1/2-year-old records request turns up, now that the airport knows that it answers to the Wyoming Public Records Act.
“They’re spending tens of millions of dollars of public money, and when we asked questions about it this is the kind of pushback we got from them,” Herrick said. “We had no choice but to pursue this.
“I’m glad the Supreme Court agreed with us, that this information should be shared,” he said. “We need those logs, we need those emails, we need copies of the consultant’s report. The fact that they’ve withheld so much from us suggests that there may well be more.”