Public notices must remain accessible
February 17, 2021
When the Wyoming Legislature reconvenes in March, the perennial battle to keep public notices in Wyoming newspapers will return as well.
On February 4, the Senate Corporation Committee voted 4-1 to advance to the Wyoming Senate legislation that would remove the requirement for counties and municipalities to publish minutes and salary information in newspapers. Senate File 17 was crafted under the guise of saving the counties and municipalities money during much needed budget crunches.
During the nearly two hour meeting, which be found at https://youtu.be/9LnWuRi_Qi4, while the concerns over the cost of printing these important public notices were mentioned, the focus appeared to be more on how unfair it was to local governments that they were required to publish these notices in the first place.
“No other governmental body—whether it’s education across the state, the state departments or special districts or other governmental bodies—have that requirement,” said Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. “We’re simply asking for fair treatment.”
It should be noted, and it was noted by Senator Charlie Scott (R - Casper), that school districts throughout the state are required to publish the salaries of all employees. What is not required of them, however, is to publish names of employees along with salary information.
Rieman, near the end of his testimony before the committee, said that while someone could pick up the newspaper and see the salary information of a county employee “everybody else you’d have to dig further and take extra steps or go to the county itself to request that data.”
The Saratoga Sun does agree that it is unfair that municipalities and counties are required to publish salary information while other governmental entities—such as special districts and state departments—are not. Rather than lower the bar, however, we believe that our government should raise the bar in the requirement of publication. Whether it’s a municipal employee or a state employee, taxpayers should be able to access that information without having to “dig further”.
The issue, however, is not just about the salary information for municipal or county employees. If it was, then Senate File 17 (https://wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2021/SF0017) would not also remove the requirement for municipal and county governments to publish their meeting minutes in their local newspaper.
While the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of Municipalities both claim that they are in support of transparency, removing the requirement to have these vital public notices published by an independent third-party does not lend itself to transparency.
Some of our elected officials understand this. In January, when the Saratoga Town Council was selecting their official publication, Councilmember Jon Nelson stated that it was important that public notices were published in newspapers because “having that hard copy of record and those archives is supremely important to history.”
Cindy Hamilton, who served on the Encampment Town Council from 2010 to 2018, told the Saratoga Sun recently “the public notices in our local paper are a critical service to the rural communities. There is something special about holding the paper in my hand and reading the printed words on paper. I don’t want to lose that.”
Encampment, in fact, learned the vital role that a published public notice plays when a more than 300 foot communication tower was proposed just outside town limits. Because public notice was required to be published in a newspaper, the residents of Encampment were able to provide public comment on this project which, ultimately, was denied by both the Carbon County Planning Commission and the Board of Carbon County Commissioners. All thanks to one part-time town employee who looked at the public notices section of the Saratoga Sun.
“Had Martha (Ralston) not read that notice, and the word spread, we would have lost our opportunity to oppose the construction,” said Hamilton. “The company already had the wheels in motion and didn’t ever imagine that they’d face opposition.”
While Senate File 17 is proposing to remove the requirements to publish minutes and salary information, we at the Sun do not think it is beyond the realm of possibility that this would open the door to removing other important public notices from the pages of your local newspaper.
If this bill were to pass on municipal and county governments were no longer required to publish these public notices in the newspaper, where would they be published? On a government website, of course. In many cases, there are municipalities that don’t have a website or that those websites are not visited nearly often as that of the local newspaper.
Another imp[ortant consideration is the added cost of technical support. The Town of Saratoga, for example, doesn’t have their own IT department and contracts that work out. Carbon County, meanwhile, does have an IT department that has started to become overworked. Recently, in fact, Carbon County’s IT Director requested permission to hire an additional employee.
That request was, ultimately, tabled as the county commissioners were unsure if there would be funding available to ensure that a third employee in the department could be sustained. Currently, Carbon County pays more than $140,000 in gross salary for their IT department which is far more than the cost of publishing public notices in the Saratoga Sun.
That’s not even mentioning the fact that there are many households in the more rural areas of Wyoming that either do not have a computer or access to the internet. According to a September 2020 report from the Legislative Service Offices, only 73 percent of households have access to broadband internet services. So, even if public notices were published consistently online and safe from hacking—just a reminder that the Central Intelligence Agency’s website was hacked in 2011 by a group named LulzSec—they wouldn’t be available to everyone.
Publishing public notices in newspapers continues to be the most secure and most accessible way for the public to read them and stay informed.