State budget battles begin

Two groups representing Wyoming cities and counties have suggested eliminating some public notices in newspapers as one way to cut costs as their governmental members face a dire downturn in revenues – and a legislative committee appears likely to back the idea after voting 10-3 to have a bill drafted.

The Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) floated the idea of eliminating the publication of meeting minutes and salaries of employees in newspapers last month.

The idea was immediately condemned by the Wyoming Press Association (WPA) as a disingenuous way of hiding information from the public while claiming it is about saving money during a crisis. Douglas Budget and Glenrock Independent Publisher Matt Adelman pointed out the county, for example, paid $385 for printing of salaries in both newspapers in August, and that is out of a $53.5 million budget – while the county pays the Wyoming County Commissioners Association $19,054 a year in dues, according to county records.

“If this is about saving money, I can think of some dues that should be eliminated first, but the association sure didn’t suggest that,” Adelman said.

The legislature’s joint corporations committee in early September asked for ideas to save money, which is when the public notice suggestion was offered with others. Converse County Commissioner and WCCA Vice President Jim Willox said the state group did not instigate the discussion but the committee chairman solicited ideas. Sen. Bill Landon (R-SD29) and Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-HD01) are co-chairs of the legislative committee.

“The legislature made a request of us in regards to what statutory efficiencies could happen. As part of that process, the commissioners association reached out to all 23 counties. I want to make it clear that we were responding to a specific request from the legislature,” Willox stated.

Wyoming state statutes require counties and municipalities to publish the names, salaries and positions of every employee, while state and school employees names are not printed but salaries and positions are.

“Why are we publishing the name of the county employee along with their salary? There are rare cases out there where people use that information wrong. Should we change how the salary was done and eliminate publishing the name? Or eliminate that publishing requirement entirely? It’s all public information, it’s not secret. (County government) is held to different standards, so the question is, what should be done about that?” Willox argued. “One of the efficiency questions answered was either don’t publish the name, and just publish position and salary, or look at it and make all government entities have the same standard.”

The state press group agrees with Willox in one aspect, said WPA Director Darcie Hoffland, and that is schools and the state should also have to publish names, positions and salaries.

Willox said the other issue which was brought up during the corporations committee meeting last month was the question of continuing to publish meeting minutes as public notices in newspapers.

“The (minutes) cost to publish them. They’re always public record. Should they be published in the paper?

“Never were legal notices brought up as one of those (we considered) to eliminate. The only two that were discussed by the commissioners association were salary and minutes. We were not pushing that – we were answering a question which was given to us,” he said.

However, Public Notice Resource Center Executive Director Richard Karpel said it is vitally important to publish meeting minutes and salaries of public employees, so citizens know what their government is doing and how tax dollars are being spent.

“It’s especially important to run them in rural areas of the state, where more people read local newspapers and fewer have access to high-speed internet. And, of course, government employees don’t want their salaries published in the newspaper. I wouldn’t like my salary published in the paper either, but my salary isn’t paid by taxpayers,” Karpel noted. “If you take the salary notices out of newspapers, government employee salaries will rise. Does anyone doubt that? That’s how government secrecy works.”

Willox said he does not question the public’s right to the information.

“Everything is public record. They’ve never been denied that – it is absolutely their right. I think the policy question is, where (should things like minutes be published)? Converse County has a very good record of complying with public records (requests). We do a pretty darned good job of getting our stuff out there,” Willox said.

“We, as an association, have not taken a position on (publishing legals or not),” Willox reiterated.

During the corporations committee, Sen. Charles Scott (R-SD30) moved to have a bill drafted for consideration which would remove the requirement to publish minutes and salaries from newspapers. The motion passed 10-3.

Rep. Aaron Clausen (R-HD06) of Converse County voted against the motion, as did Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-SD15) and Rep. Roy Edwards (R-HD53).

“It’s always been that people want to cut what they don’t want to do. We asked (WAM and WAC) to come up with suggestions. One of the things they came up with on this list was their publishing costs,” Clausen said.

“I’ve seen several of these bills over the time I’ve been in the legislature, usually they get shot down due to transparency issues of allowing municipalities and counties to put their minutes, and other things that they usually have to publish, on a website platform,” he said.

Clausen said the more transparent things are, the more efficient they will be – and transparency is at the root of the issue.

“It’s not that we think they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing, however, transparency in government is very important. Does the cost of (publishing public notices and legals) equal the efficiency of it? I would say, probably, yes.

“Do I see a whole bunch of people trying to pull a bunch of garbage that they don’t want people to find out about? No. I mean, that’s part of the checks and balances of it. Publishing in newspapers and the press is part of that,” Clausen said.

Adelman, who is the immediate past president of the National Newspaper Association, concurred. “That is the role of newspapers in Wyoming - to hold government accountable and keep it as transparent as possible. Public notices are a big part of that, which is why we keep them as least expensive as possible and provide a big discount for the county to run in both the Douglas and Glenrock papers with one low cost.”

Karpel said people forget to think about how people consume information in a newspaper as opposed to a website.

“People find things in newspapers they didn’t expect to see. By contrast, when we’re on the internet we search for information and screen out all information we aren’t seeking. Tons of stuff on the internet gets lost and forgotten,” he said.

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