Wyoming Newspapers, Inc.
CHEYENNE – In 1789, The very first session of the U.S. Congress required the Secretary of State to publish all orders, votes, etc. in at least three well-circulated newspapers. Our first lawmakers recognized that a government is made up of fallible humans that if not held to rigid transparency guidelines, might be tempted to cover up an issue that would be detrimental to their own best interests.
Now that transparency may be under attack. House Bill 201, introduced by Rep. David Burkhart, Jr. (R) of Carbon County, would change the current state statute which dictates that municipalities and county governments must select a paper of record and publish the minutes to all regular and special meetings or the governing body, as well as the names of all ordinances passed. If the bill passes, it would become optional for the governing bodies to name an official paper of record, and the bodies would have the choice to post the minutes on their own websites or physically in their respective clerks’ office.
According to Bob Bonnar, lobbyist for the Wyoming Press Association and editor-publisher of the Newcastle News Letter Journal, the bill is an outright attack on the newspaper industry. Bonner said he does not know why the change is being discussed. “I’m really surprised by it and concerned about it because three of the sponsors on the senate side are from the Senate Corporations Committee, which has worked for nine months, I thought, to improve government transparency,” Bonnar said. “It really is a surprise to me. It’s obviously an attack on newspapers by associations that represent government official who don’t like newspapers doing their jobs.
It’s an effort to weaken newspapers and I don’t know how far they intend to go with it, to be honest with you.”
Experiments in having notices only available online have been attempted in recent years but have not always gone as planned. In August 2012, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality approved a general permit to allow a group of farmers to build a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation in rural Newton County.
New public notice rules approved by the EPA allowed ADEQ to only publish the notice on its website, instead of the local newspaper. Although it was posted for 30 days, the agency did not receive a single comment or objection. However, once the citizens discovered a hog farm was about to be built near their homes, the community erupted in anger.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent defending and settling lawsuits filed over the hog farm. If ADEQ had spent just a few hundred dollars publishing notices in a local newspaper, it would have been more visible to the community and the conflict may have been avoided.
For small communities such as Guernsey, the biggest concern that comes to mind seems to be just how many older people are engaged with a computer to the extent that they would be adequately informed without the ability to access that information by the customary source a hold-in-your-hand newspaper provides.
Guernsey’s Clerk Treasurer Kate Farmer, who bears the responsibility of getting that information out to the public by legal means, says she would be very concerned that a number of older people would not be reached if that were to change. “Not everyone looks at our website—and we do already publish our information on the website, but we know not everyone reads it. I would be very concerned about the number of people that we could be missing if that were to become an option.”
Three of the five Guernsey City Council members reached for comment shared Farmer’s concerns. Council member Disco Harris said he agrees because he himself doesn’t utilize a computer to the extent that many people do. “If I’m looking for something, it’s not going to be via a computer. I prefer the newspaper. The computer…well, It’s just not my thing.”
Council member Steve Kelley said he agrees but says he believes that there will likely come a time down the road when everything will be done on computer and computer only. “I think that day probably is coming,” said Kelley. “But right now, I don’t think we’re there—not just yet. There are still plenty of people who simply don’t want to learn how to use one. I don’t think just using a website to get that information out would be adequate.”
Council member Shane Whitworth also agrees. “We live in a community that has a high number of retired people. Many of them are not or don’t want to be that involved with doing things on a computer. I think we need to continue to publish minutes and the other things in the newspaper.”
“I think it’s a positive move,” said Wheatland City Councilman Bill Britz. “There is a lot of expense with notices that can be done with other methods and be just as transparent. Vouchers could be presented on our website. Citizens can come to Town Hall and look at any of that or ask a clerk for a copy.”
Yes, residents are allowed to go to the Town Hall or Courthouse to peruse the notices and meeting minutes, as long as they go when those buildings are open. Yes, a lot of households in Platte County have access to the internet, but not all. According to the Pew Research Center, in the U.S., 34 percent of adults over 65 don’t use the internet. Low income households are more likely to not be online, more so in rural areas like Platte County.
Many notices and events are unexpectedly discovered when people read the newspaper.
Those readers then pass along the information to friends, family and coworkers; and the information continues spreading exponentially. When going online, surfers are searching for specific information and are less likely to “fortuitously” come across something they aren’t looking for.
And government websites are not usually the easiest sites to navigate.
Measuring U, a quantitative research firm based in Denver, Colo., did a study on how usable state government websites were for the general public.
The study found most government websites have an overwhelming amount of information presented, making it difficult to find what users were looking for. The information was poorly prioritized and the names of links were misleading, the study found.
Newspaper is forever. It is printed, kept by some individuals, and archived by state and national entities. Once it’s printed, newsprint can’t be altered. Not so with documents online. Modifying dates, specifics, or names is easily handled online without any evidence it was ever changed. In addition, hackers and ransomware scams put documents that are only online at risk of being completely erased. Public notices printed in the Platte County Record-Times are posted online for free on the website. As a neutral third party, newspapers have no vested interest in altering the content.
Bonnar said he first heard about the bill during a meeting of the interim corporations committee last April. He thought the notion was dead after that meeting – but said lobbying groups in Cheyenne have resurrected the measure.
“We answered that then and the committee didn’t even make a motion to do this after it was asked for by these associations with us in the room,” Bonnar said. “It was a back-and-forth conversation, pros and cons were put before the committee, and nobody in the committee even made a motion for something like this.
“The Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming School Boards Association consistently lobby for this. Year after year, it seems like newspapers have to defend their very existence. Basically, (the groups) are bureaucracies in the purest sense of the word. They don’t actually represent any people, they represent elected officials and public employees and they lobby pretty vigorously in the Wyoming State Legislature. They’ve got significant budgets and significant relationships and it’s a constant pressure from those organizations to weaken, and I think in the endgame, to eliminate newspapers in their communities.
Obviously there are harms to newspaper financially, but that’s really secondary,” he said. “These are the same organizations that claim they need to charge you a fee to e-mail you a public record. They constantly say that they need new systems, that their people aren’t trained well enough, to handle public record requests for digital records. Now these same people are saying they can publish public notices digitally cheaper than newspapers? It simply isn’t true by their own admission.”
According to Bonnar, the bill is just the latest piece of legislation intended to hinder the press. Bonnar said he believes that this type of legislation could eventually result in limited access to public meetings and the end of government transparency, if certain lobbying groups get their way.
“I’ve had to get language amended out of bills and defeat bills that specifically attempt to do this pretty consistently over the last eight years,” he said.
“Once it’s in session and lobbyists can access individual legislators without it being as public and transparent, the bill has apparently got some supporters. Nobody supported this move in the public meeting in the spring in Lander when these groups asked for it. They had no legislative support at all. But now when you’re in Cheyenne, you’re in the area that lobbyists are considerably stronger than citizens, particularly lobbyists in associations that are funded by taxpayers. They’ve got an abundance of resources and an advantage once the legislature shifts back to Cheyenne. They’re using the advantage right now.
“I would say if they succeed on this, that open meetings would be their next target, eventually.”
The largest issue at stake is government transparency. Requiring independent, third-party newspapers to ensure public notices run in accordance with the law helps prevent government officials from hiding information they would prefer the public not see.
“This bill is bittersweet for me because I enjoy reading the newspaper each week and if it is passed, it would cause a lot of harm to the newspaper. But on the other hand, if publishing the notices wasn’t required by law, it would save the Town money,” said Wheatland Mayor Brandon Graves. “It’s fiscally responsible to save the taxpayer’s money. But the fees to the newspaper are a very small percentage of the Town budget.”
Torrington Mayor Randy Adams said he can see the bill from several perspectives.
“When I think back to city council meetings and those bills for publication come across our desk and we have to approve them, typically the council says ‘gosh, it sure costs us a lot,’” Adams said. “From that perspective, I suppose we wouldn’t mind losing that bill every month.
“When I think about how far along we are in adapting to internet usage and going away from newspapers, I don’t know if the public is totally ready to do that yet. When you look at the age group from 14 or 16 to 45, they’re probably ready to move. We have a fairly aged population here and that population more likely gets that news from the newspaper than they get it from the internet. I think there is still a need to publish in the newspaper in order to reach that part of the public. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point where we’ll have a segment if the population that is totally free of the newspaper.”
Proposals to limit government notices to online are only lobbied for by elected officials and government employees – rarely members of the general public. This bill could put government accountability in jeopardy.