A Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that would remove some of the public notices that local governments are required to publish in newspapers, instead making cities and counties provide them on their websites.
Senate File 17, which has the support of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, was largely pitched as a way for local governments to save on publishing costs amid ongoing budget crunches. The proposal would remove the requirement for them to pay to publish employees’ annual salaries and meeting minutes in at least one local newspaper. Towns and counties would instead have to keep the information on their official websites.
During the committee’s discussion, WCCA Executive Director Jerimiah Rieman estimated counties pay roughly $400,000 annually for the public notices addressed in the bill. That accounts for less than 1% to 2% of many counties’ budgets.
He also argued the proposal would not lessen the transparency of local governments.
“One of the things that we asked for, and it was incorporated into this bill, is a requirement that we actually provide the information to the newspaper, regardless of whether it has to be published, so we will be providing that,” Rieman said. “In terms of transparency, counties, like other governmental bodies, are required to provide this information to the public at request, whether that’s in hard copy or in electronic form, so I’m going to assure you that we will not be shirking our responsibilities in the transparency arena.”
Some representatives of the press who testified disagreed.
Jen Hicks, owner of the Buffalo Bulletin and vice president of the Wyoming Press Association, argued public notices in newspapers are one of the best ways to let the public see how the government is conducting its business.
“When you put the fox in charge of the hen house, it’s easy to see how accountability and transparency is lost,” Hicks said. “I really feel that by publishing notices, meeting minutes and salaries in Wyoming newspapers, local governing bodies do a justice to the people’s time and resources by allowing people to see how and where those resources are going.”
Hicks estimated that the required legal notices, including some that wouldn’t be removed under the bill, account for less than 5% of net revenue for the Johnson County newspaper.
The revenue hit to local newspapers from the bill could vary widely, and lawmakers on the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee were most concerned with the bill’s impact on the state’s smallest publications.
Matt Adelman, publisher of the Douglas Budget and the Glenrock Independent, said he heard from a woman last week who learned from a couple of friends that her name was in the public notices, and she wanted to get hold of that information.
In response, Adelman set her up with a free subscription, and she was able to find the posting easily.
“Her point was the newspaper was the one spot she knew to call to find public information on a public notice,” Adelman said. “She was thrilled to be able to find what she needed quickly and easily on our website. She would never have even known to look if it hadn’t been printed in the paper.”
Adelman described the print revenue from public notices as the “lifeblood” of the Glenrock Independent and papers of similar sizes, especially during economic downturns. By comparison, the revenue hit to local governments is relatively minuscule, he said.
“There are times that that’s the only source keeping (us) alive for a couple months at a time,” Adelman said. “You will be losing some newspapers if you pass this bill. … You pull public notices from the Douglas Budget, you’re not going to kill the paper, same with the Buffalo Bulletin, but in small, small communities, you’re probably going to have a significant impact.”
Jim Wood, a publisher with Wyoming Newspapers Inc., which includes papers in Torrington, Wheatland, Lingle, Guernsey and Lusk, echoed Adelman’s concerns, stating the bill’s effects would be “substantial” for his smallest publications. He also said the notices can sometimes generate public input that actually leads to more savings than would be created by the bill.
“I think the savings can come from members in the community who see something posted in the newspaper ... they have ideas that they can pass on to their city council members, their county commissioners and others (for) ways that can save more money than you’re going to save with half a percent of the budget if you cut legal notice of publication out of newspapers,” Wood said.
Others who testified worried about what kind of message would be sent by passing Senate File 17.
Chris Merrill, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said the current law sends a direct message to local governments: it is incumbent upon them to provide the public with some basic information.
“It seems to me that the implicit message in the bill before you today as drafted is different,” Merrill said. “It’s saying, ‘People, it’s now incumbent on you to remember to get on a computer and regularly monitor the websites of your municipalities and counties.’ I believe the existing law is better ... because it doesn’t ask regular people to be journalists, and it doesn’t require them to figure out how and where to find this important information.”
Dave Fraser, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, emphasized the bill only deals with the publication of meeting minutes and employee salaries, rather than all public notice requirements.
“I think this bill not only take steps to modernize the way we communicate with the people and actually reflect more closely how we actually do communicate these days,” Fraser said. “I also think it’s narrowly focused enough to really target an area that really could be argued to be more transparent when published 24/7 on the city’s website.”
Fraser did not have an exact figure for how much cities and towns spend on the notice requirements, but added it was not insignificant.
Although the committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote, multiple senators expressed hesitations over it in the long run.
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, who chairs the committee, said he thought it was worth bringing the proposal to the Senate floor to discuss possible solutions, but added he would likely vote against the proposal when it comes to the full chamber.
With the committee’s approval, SF 17 could be heard by the Senate when the Legislature meets for its in-person session starting March 1.