— This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes — Ed.
Sublette County must pay damages for violating Wyoming law when commissioners switched their legal advertising from a newspaper to a shopper, a judge ruled Friday.
District Court Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell decided the case in a summary-judgment ruling, highlighting the duty governments have to properly inform citizens about upcoming decisions. “The constitutional protections of due process lie at the heart of the notion of publication of legal notices,” he wrote.
Commissioners broke a contract with the Pinedale Roundup last year when they pulled legal notices from that newspaper and started running them in a shopper called the Sublette Trader, the decision said. The Roundup is entitled to compensation for lost revenue, the amount of which will be set at a hearing, Donnell wrote.
Press advocates hailed the decision as a victory for government openness and public access. Sublette commission chairman Andy Nelson didn’t return a call seeking comment.
“Since before Wyoming was a state the laws have required counties to publish public notices in recognized, legitimate publications,” said Jim Angell, director of the Wyoming Press Association. “We have these laws for a reason and most of the time they’re good reasons and the judge agreed with that.”
The newspaper alleged commissioners switched to the shopper because they didn’t like the paper’s scrutiny and coverage. Commissioners maintained the move was a fiscal decision that might save $20,000 a year.
The judge didn’t weigh in on those conflicting claims. Nevertheless, Pinedale Roundup editor Stephen Crane said the county’s woes were self-inflicted.
“This entire situation was avoidable if the commissioners had listened to their own legal counsel who repeatedly advised them not to go this route,” he said. “While the county is officially on the losing end of the judge’s ruling, the bigger losers are the taxpayers of Sublette County.”
The intent of the public notices and legal ads is to give citizens an opportunity to participate through advance notices in newspapers. Wyoming laws define newspapers as publications that have a paid circulation of 500 and that have published at least 52 weekly issues in the previous year.
The Trader had not met the publication requirement. It only began accepting money — by placing a cup at distribution stands and asking for a penny per issue — as it was being considered and selected for the legal ads and public notices, according to the suit and ruling. In addition, the Trader isn’t a newspaper, Donnell said.
“…[T]he Trader is not a newspaper such that the contents of the notices are ‘brought home’ to the public generally,” he wrote. “The bulk of the publication contains advertising, with only three columns and listings of community events. The Trader employs no reporters or photographers; does not contain articles on local events; does not cover government (other than reprinting press releases); does not editorialize; and does not cover law enforcement or the courts.”
The judge was not asked to and did not address the implications of conducting public business without proper notice. Wyoming law, “Meetings of public agencies,” appears clear on the consequences of failing to advertise properly.
“No action of a governing body of an agency shall be taken except during a public meeting following notice of the meeting in accordance with this act,” the law says. “Action taken at a meeting not in conformity with this act is null and void and not merely voidable.”
The decision puts almost a year’s worth of commission decisions in jeopardy, editor Crane said. During the time the notices were not published in the Roundup, the county has done everything from adopting a budget to appointing a new sheriff.
“The judge’s ruling could potentially open Pandora’s Box,” he said.
Not all arms of county government have followed the board of county commissioner’s move.
For example, Sublette County Treasurer Roxanna Jensen published this summer’s delinquent tax notices in the Roundup in early July, before Donnell issued his ruling.
Sublette County residents have an opportunity to see more of their government’s workings as the county prepares to expand its commission board from three to five members. “Certainly there’s a theme by a handful of candidates underscoring the need for a substantial increase in transparency here at the county,” Crane said.
— This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work. For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University — Ed