A couple of weeks ago, a few state legislators voted to advance a bill that would relieve local governments from the very small burden of printing public notices in local newspapers. We in Uinta County are fortunate that Sen. Wendy Schuler and Rep. Danny Eyre — both of whom are on the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee — were not among the shortsighted legislators who supported the idea to be less transparent.
Unfortunately, at the early stages of legislation, it only takes a few to buck the system — in this case, a system that’s been in place for hundreds of years.
Public notices actually predate newspapers, as history teaches us accounts of notices being posted in town squares to inform the community. When newspapers came around, they only increased the visibility of such notices, and citizens have benefited ever since.
The bill that advanced out of committee recently would allow governments to only post public notices online — they are already available online at wyopublicnotices.com — to save money. We have several problems with that notion.
Public notices have four defining characteristics, according to the Public Notice Resource Center. First, they must be published by an independent third party. American newspapers, often called the Fourth Estate or the Fourth Pillar of Democracy, have taken on this task for hundreds of years. Newspapers understand the laws, rules and ethics about public notices, and they’ve done a great job to inform the public. Newspapers are the most trusted source of information about government activities, and they have been for a very long time.
The second characteristic of public notices is that they must be archivable. “A public notice must be archived in a secure and publicly available format,” the Public Notice Resource Center states. “Print newspapers have always fulfilled this element because a public notice published in a newspaper is easily archivable, and can be archived now, in several different places, formats, and without wait. Newspapers are usually archived by the publishing company and by libraries. These archiving venues provide the public with the option to retrieve the notices for years after date of publication.”
Have you ever been to a website after not seeing it for several months or years? They change. And there is absolutely nothing stopping counties or cities or just one bad actor from changing a notice that is published only online.
Another characteristic of public notices is that they must be accessible. Sure, most people can access the internet whenever they’d like. But newspapers — especially in Wyoming — have a vast array of readers, many of whom prefer to get their news in print. We see this with circulation numbers across the state.
The fourth characteristic of public notices is that they must be verifiable. Here again, an online-only option flies in the face of transparency. You cannot verify something that doesn’t exist, and websites pop up and disappear more than the rodents in a game of Whack-a-Mole. Anyone can come to our office and leaf through decades-old newspapers to verify public notices (or just for the nostalgia) or go to the local library and find archives for over 100 years.
And contrary to what state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said when arguing to decrease transparency, the newspaper industry is not “refusing to pivot forward.” Nethercott and the others who voted against transparency — Sens. Charles Scott, R-Casper; Cale Case, R-Lander; and Reps. Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Andi Clifford, D-Riverton; Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle; and Dan Furphy, R-Laramie — could, in the end, cost local governments across Wyoming millions of dollars should the state’s laws concerning public notices be upended.
No, the newspaper industry is not refusing to pivot but, rather, the industry is doing what it’s always done, which is look out for the communities we serve. Uinta County spends about $12,000 — a tiny drop in the county’s $20 million annual budget — annually to print public notices in the Uinta County Herald. In fact, that comes to six-hundredths of one percent of what the county spends each year. But we’re not arguing that $12,000 is nominal; that would diminish our role as a government watchdog. We are arguing that it would be nearly impossible to find $12,000 within the county budget that gives taxpayers more bang for their buck because, simply put, when people are watching, government is better behaved, especially when it comes to spending.
Government dealings are more transparent when in print. Wherever there is increased transparency, overall costs are driven down, that’s a fact. For instance, a city or county seeking a bid for a project — large or small — will undoubtedly get more competitive bids because there is more competition when public notices are printed in local newspapers. This could be pocket change in some instances, but that adds up; in other cases, it is saving local governments countless dollars throughout any given project or fiscal period.
Lawsuits over public notices can cost tens of thousands of dollars — and really, the sky is the limit with some lawsuits — for a single municipality or county. We saw a case like that in Pinedale a few years ago that cost the county dearly while serving as a wake-up call to the other 22 Wyoming counties.
We both applaud those on the committee who weren’t fooled by the promise to save a few thousand dollars now in exchange for potentially crippling costs in the future and at the cost of transparency. Kudos to local legislators Eyre and Schuler for their efforts to keep public notices in local newspapers. And kudos to the others on the committee who voted against this terrible bill; they are Sens. Bill Landen, R-Casper; and Reps. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne; Aaron Clausen, R-Douglas; and Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance.
Here is what Sen. Schuler of Evanston had to say about voting against this bill and voting in favor of transparency:
“… I am not now, or in the future, in support of posting only online or giving the option to do one at the expense of the other, with government meetings, minutes, and compensation information. I will vote against the draft bill in committee and on the floor…
“We want the public to be as informed as possible and to encourage transparency. Understanding that our citizens receive their news differently, it behooves us to provide both printed and electronic options. Many of our citizens do not have access to the electronic format and many have access but do not choose to get their news on government websites. Our local newspapers are so important to our citizens and even though there would be some cost savings to local governments, the ability of all of our citizens to be informed at every level with their government entities and elected leaders is paramount.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Rep. Eyre of Lyman agrees.
“Even though we are getting most of our news through electronic means these days, I think that many of us still like to read the local newspaper,” he said. “I doubt that I would ever go to the town or county website to look at the minutes or other notices that they might post. But I always read the school board or town council minutes when they are published in the local paper.”
Since the bill advanced out of committee by a 7-6 vote, we are calling on other common-sense legislators, especially those in our area, to follow Schuler’s and Eyre’s lead and to support transparency by voting against the elimination of public notices in local newspapers.