Wyoming Supreme Court Rules that Airport Operator Is Subject to Open Records Law
Seeking to avoid an "absurd result," the highest state court in Wyoming has ruled that the Jackson Hole Airport cannot refuse to produce airport-related documents by claiming that the airport is not subject to the state's open records law: the Wyoming Public Records Act (WPRA). This decision is important for airports, governments that own airports, airlines, fixed base operators (FBOs), general aviation, pilots, aircraft owners, concessions, commercial passengers, cargo shippers and other persons and entities that use or do business with airports because it highlights the fact that publicly owned airports are subject to and must comply with state open records laws.
In a unanimous decision issued January 15, 2019, the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed a lower court's ruling that the WPRA (which is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act) did not apply to the airport's board.1 This decision is consistent with the fact that most airports throughout the United States—which are owned and operated by states, counties, municipalities and other local governmental entities—are subject to their respective state's open records laws.
The Wyoming case was filed by a party that had sought unsuccessfully to operate a second FBO facility at the airport, and had asked the airport for documents—including emails, a consultant's report and other materials—relating to the airport's decision to purchase the assets of the sole privately owned FBO and thereafter serve as the airport's sole FBO. The airport denied that it was subject to the WPRA, despite its status as a public entity.
The lower court rejected the plaintiff's "Petition for Access to Records," finding that the airport was governed solely by the more restrictive Special District Public Records and Meetings Act (Special District Act) and not the more expansive WPRA. In reversing the lower court, the state supreme court construed the WPRA broadly to encompass documents relating to the airport's decision-making. The WPRA broadly defines the records subject to its disclosure requirements to include "any information in a physical form created, accepted, or obtained by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision of the state in furtherance of its official function and transaction of public business which is not privileged or confidential by law."2 The lower court ruled that the airport was not subject to the more comprehensive WPRA because its board was neither a state entity nor a political subdivision. However, the state supreme court faulted the lower court for interpreting "the term political subdivision too narrowly" and giving it "a meaning that is not in keeping with the WPRA's purpose or its definition of the term."
The state supreme court emphasized that the term "political subdivision" used in the WPRA is broader than a "county, city, township or school district." Rather, the state supreme court ruling continues, the legislature intended for the WPRA to be construed "liberally in favor of public record disclosure," and that the phrase "special district within the state" in the definition of "political subdivision" (§ 16-4-201(a)(iv)) must have a "broader, more general meaning," which includes the airport board, because it "was indisputably created to perform a public function."
In addition, the state supreme court interpreted the WPRA "as applicable to the Board is in keeping with the Act's purpose of maintaining an open and accountable government.," It also is "in keeping with the records at which the Act's disclosure are directed, those 'created, accepted, or obtained' in the 'transaction of public business.'" § 16-4-201(a)(v). The state supreme court emphasized that its ruling "avoids the absurd result that would follow if we were to interpret the WPRA as inapplicable to the Board."
The state supreme court also found meritless the argument that the categories of documents listed in the more narrow Special District Act were the only records the airport must retain. The state supreme court stated that the state's "record retention statutes were in place when the legislature enacted the Special District Act in 2010, and the [newer] Act contains no language suggesting that the legislature intended it to eliminate or replace the preexisting record retention requirements." The state supreme court added that the state legislature intended "that certain documents should be readily available for public review…." The state supreme court further stated that when it reads "the Special District Act as a whole and in harmony with the other laws applicable to the covered entities," the court "must conclude that it does not establish or limit the covered entities' record retention requirements."
1. Wyoming Jet Center, LLC v. Jackson Hole Airport Board, S-18-0154
Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 16-4-201(a)(v)
For more information about this case or other aviation-related legal matters, contact Roy Goldberg.