Legals: A light in the shadows
October 21, 2020
Wyoming legislators, under the guise of “cost saving measures” for local governments, are again attempting to remove vital legal notices from the pages of your local newspaper.
Though the Wyoming Legislature is not in session and many legislators will not return to the capitol in January following primary defeats, they are still working on interim topics. One of those topics, approved on a 10-3 vote by the Joint Corporations Committee on September 11, would remove the requirement for municipal and county governments to publish meeting minutes, expenses and salaries in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.
For more than 125 years, Wyoming citizens have known that they can look to their local paper for information vital to keeping informed on the actions of their government. Recently, Wyoming newspapers have had to actively battle the legislature to keep legal notices in a place accessible to ALL Wyoming citizens.
The Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) worked together last month to convince the Joint Corporations Committee to draft a bill that would eliminate the aforementioned legal notices.
Their argument for such a dramatic change? The cost of publishing.
That argument is patently false. To start with, just like governments are statutorily obligated to publish their legal notices in newspapers, newspapers are required to keep the cost low. Indeed, under 18-3-518(a) it reads “Legal advertising required by law to be published shall be purchased at a rate not to exceed the amount charged … by a weekly newspaper at the open local display advertising rate.”
Additionally, the cost of publishing these legal notices is a fraction of the overall budget for local governments.
The Town of Saratoga, for example, spent $24,646.38 in advertising last year with the Saratoga Sun, which amounted for .99 percent of their 2019/2020 Fiscal Year Budget. The Town budgeted $26,300 for legal advertising this year, which accounted for .89 percent of their $2,954,794 budget.
That percentage of money spent is even smaller when compared with the budget for the Board of Carbon County Commissioners (BOCCC). Last year, the BOCCC spent $37,005, or .17 percent, of their entire budget on legal advertising. The $25,000 budgeted for Fiscal Year 2020/2021, meanwhile, accounts for only .11 percent of their entire budget.
The savings to taxpayers, however, is far more than the money spent by local governments.
In Bell, California the residents of this Los Angeles suburb found out how out-of-hand the spending of their local government can get when legal notices are not easily accessible. With a population of 37,000 and a median annual income of $30,000, the residents of Bell wondered how their public officials managed to live “like the rich and famous.”
Bell’s town manager owned a beachfront mansion and a 10-acre horse ranch in Seattle. Following an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, it was revealed that the manager was earning $787,637 annually in 2010. Yet, when he started in 1993, he was making $72,000 a year. The police chief of Bell also benefited, making $457,000 a year; 50 percent more than the police chief of Los Angeles.
Due to legal notices published in the pages of the Saratoga Sun, readers know that the mayor of Saratoga earns $4,800 a year, that Saratoga Town Council members are paid $50 per meeting and that Carbon County Commissioners are paid $25,000 annually.
The publication of legal notices in newspapers provides a permanent and independent record of the government’s actions. Both WAM and the WCCA have touted publishing on local government websites as a “cost saving” alternative to publishing in a newspaper, but cost saving to whom?
It costs money to not only host these websites, but for IT and security personnel to ensure against any problems. As has been proven countless times during repeated federal government shutdowns, the maintenance of websites and social media accounts are often the first to go due to lapses in funding.
When the websites are running, they can often be difficult to navigate for infrequent users and, in some cases, some local governments barely have a website. Even when one doesn’t consider the cost or the difficulty in navigating such websites, they are also rarely visited and not nearly as accessible as some, such as WAM and the WCCA, would like to think.
Data from the Pew Research Center found that only 13 percent of adult internet users visit a local, state or federal government website. Additionally, the Census Bureau found that 30 percent of Americans do not use the internet at all, even though half have a computer at home.
Newspapers, meanwhile, are available at gas stations, grocery stores and through postal delivery. In fact, one does not even need to buy a newspaper to be able to read it as a copy can often be found at the local library. Additionally, legal notices are uploaded free to read on the Saratoga Sun website and on wyopublicnotices.com.
Both state and local governments undoubtedly will need to make difficult decisions when it comes to their budgets in the future. As that happens, they should be held even more accountable and should be even more transparent.
Removing legal notices from newspapers does neither.
Contact any of your elected representatives—whether municipal, county or state—and tell them that you want to know what your government is doing with your money by keeping legal notices in your local paper.