Volume 6, Number 30 - October 19, 2006
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State agency fails openness test
Editor’s note: The Examiner has noted an increasing tendency toward secrecy on behalf of certain agencies, from local boards to state agencies and federal bureaus. This unsettling trend is contrary to state and federal laws calling for the public business to be conducted in full public view. This is the fourth installation of a multi-part series that lays out the laws providing for “government in sunshine” as well as outlining some of the obstacles currently encountered in the quest for public information.
The Wyoming State Veterinarian is using a new law enacted by the Wyoming Legislature to block public access to information previously available.
In the past, the state vet published a quarantine list that identified the name of the livestock operation, the county in which it was located, the kind and number of livestock under quarantine, and the disease for which the herd had been quarantined. In the event of a disease outbreak, animal health officials, other livestock producers and the general public could look at the list to understand where a disease outbreak was occurring and get a feel for the number of animals involved. For livestock producers, it was a way to understand how close an outbreak was occurring to their operations. The quarantine list was frequently used and updated during Wyoming’s most recent brucellosis outbreak. Government animal health officials told the public that neighboring cattle outfits that had fenceline contact or had grazed in common allotments with the effected herds would be held for brucellosis testing as well. Livestock producers could then log onto the WLB website to learn who was under quarantine to see if their own herds would be tested as well due to proximity to quarantined herds. The list was a valuable tool.
The brucellosis outbreak was one disease issue, coupled with worldwide concern for tracing bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which helped to demonstrate the need for having a reportable disease list in Wyoming. This list would be created by the Wyoming State Veterinarian and would require the reporting of suspected or diagnosed cases of infectious diseases in the state’s livestock herds. It would be a way for animal health officials to track animal health issues on a statewide scale. Information on disease occurrence could be collected on a variety of diseases, not just those requiring quarantine. In order for the information to be forthcoming, and to protect the identity of livestock producers with reportable diseases, the Wyoming Legislature enacted a law creating a duty of the public to report diseases to the state veterinarian.
The new law states: “Any person or government entity who knows or suspects that there is any contagious or infectious reportable disease among animals owned by or under their jurisdiction or any veterinarian who knows or suspects any reportable contagious or infectious disease on any premises or in any animal, shall immediately report the same to the state veterinarian.
The law called for the state veterinarian to “establish and manage a list of reportable diseases for any contagious or infectious disease deemed by the state veterinarian to be a threat to domestic animals,” and called for “information collected in response to the list of reportable diseases shall be considered confidential proprietary information.”
Access to any information collected under the list of reportable diseases would be limited to the person who reported the disease and the state veterinarian, except that the state veterinarian, “at his discretion,” could notify the owners of possible contact animals, adjacent landowners, members of the Wyoming Livestock Board, the state vet lab, public health officers in some cases, or the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in some cases.
The notion that the state vet, “at his discretion,” may release certain information is little comfort to livestock producers in western Wyoming who have been at odds with the current state vet, Dr. Dwayne Oldham. The Sublette County Farm Bureau board recently passed a resolution calling for the Wyoming Livestock Board to fire Oldhman, adding that if the board refuses, the governor should fire the members of WLB. The county resolution passed the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s southwest district board meeting earlier this month, and will proceed to a vote of the members of the state organization in early November.
The new reportable disease law imposes a penalty as well: “A failure to report, or any attempt to conceal the existence of the disease or to willfully or maliciously obstruct or resist the veterinarian in the discharge of his duty, is a misdemeanor.”
So the state vet created a reportable disease list that includes a wide variety of diseases, from anthrax and brucellosis to anaplasmosis, soremouth, footrot and West Nile virus. But in creating the reportable disease list, the state vet created a single list – the “Wyoming Reportable and Quarantinable Disease List.” In doing so, the state vet made a policy decision to withhold information from the quarantine list, and actually made diseases like West Nile virus quarantinable.
As for the quarantine list on the WLB website, it’s been updated to delete the identifying information and states: “Due to the new guidelines set by the Reportable Disease list published the Wyoming State Veterinarian, there are no names on this list. Vets may request information directly from our office and information will be given out on a case-by-case basis.”
Although the WLB website notes: “The quarantine list is updated frequently,” it hasn’t been updated for nearly three months.
By combining the quarantine list and the reportable disease list, the state vet’s office guaranteed that it would withhold information from the public.
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