(Opinion) — For several years Sublette County officials were incensed by the way their decisions were being covered by the county’s two newspapers, the Pinedale Roundup and the Sublette Examiner. Last October they decided to do something about it.
The action they took prompted a lawsuit against the county, raised questions about how publications are legally classified as newspapers and whether the public notices Sublette County has printed are even legal. That last one could have great repercussions on government business that’s been conducted during the past seven months.
The county essentially declared to the papers, “We don’t like critical news coverage, so we’re going to hit you in your wallet.” The move also demonstrated that commissioners don’t seem to care whether anyone is able to find and read the county’s legal notices.
A transcript of a conversation between three Sublette officials — a commissioner, county clerk and sheriff — makes the showdown even more compelling. It reveals that the commission has cancelled contracts with local newspapers in retaliation for allegedly “incendiary” news stories and headlines before, and that county officials are willing to use their official powers to attack journalists.
Both the Roundup and the Examiner are owned by the same company, Wyoming Newspapers. In 2010, upset about how the Examiner portrayed the county commission in its news pages, the body voted to make the Roundup the legal newspaper of Sublette County. That meant every time local government calls for bids, announces upcoming hearings or releases other public legal notices, the county must pay to print the information in the Roundup. The use of a legal newspaper of record is a key means of ensuring transparency, and as such it must meet certain agreed-upon requirements. It’s how government informs all interested parties — e.g. contractors who may want to bid on county projects, potential job applicants or citizens who want to participate in the processes of local government — of their dealings.
Late last year the commissioners — then upset about the Roundup’s coverage — changed targets. But instead of switching back to the Examiner, which would have just put the county’s money into a different pocket of Wyoming Newspapers, officials concocted a plan to print legal notices in the county’s other publication — an advertising “shopper” called the Sublette Trader.
Now, a shopper is called what it is precisely because that’s what it helps readers do. The publication prints classified and retail advertisements to let people know what items and services are for sale and the potential bargains available in local shops.
Under no definition should it ever be considered a newspaper. Shoppers might print occasional press releases but they definitely don’t publish news. They don’t have reporters and editors, and they don’t have a verified paid circulation that shows at least 500 copies are distributed weekly. An official newspaper in Wyoming has to publish all 52 weeks of the year, and the Trader acknowledges some years it has not. Shoppers are dropped off at various businesses and outlets and picked up for free.
Sublette County Deputy Attorney Matt Gaffney advised the commission that cancelling the contract it signed with the Roundup in July 2015 wasn’t a good idea because in his view the Trader doesn’t meet the legal requirements to run public notices. The commission thought it could get around those technicalities with an absurd scheme it pitched to Trader Publisher Lwyn Dahl: Charge a penny for every copy using the honor system and a penny cup next to the stack of shoppers.
Wyoming Newspapers sued in April and the company’s attorney, Bruce Moats, asked for a summary judgment against Sublette County. That motion was followed by at least four other briefs outlining various counterclaims and other motions by both sides. A hearing is scheduled June 22 to sort it all out. The Pinedale Roundup argues that it lost $13,073 from October 2015 to March 31, 2016, and will lose additional revenue each week until a ruling is made.
The county has asserted that the move to the shopper was strictly a cost-cutting measure. But a transcript acquired by WyoFile of a closed door meeting among officials suggests a darker ulterior motive.
Sublette County Commission Chairman Andy Nelson, County Clerk Mary Lankford and Sheriff Stephen Haskell met on April 23 to discuss how to resolve widely publicized problems between the sheriff’s office and the county clerk over a fiasco about uniforms the sheriff purchased. During the conversation the talk turned to the frustration the trio felt over newspaper coverage, particularly by Roundup reporter and former Examiner editor Joy Ufford.
Lankford and Nelson said Ufford was the reason the county changed the official newspaper from the Examiner to the Roundup in 2010. “I don’t know specifically what was the final straw, but it got so bad that the county took their legal ads … and we changed newspapers mid-year and said we’re done with the Examiner, we are not paying you to attack us anymore,” the county clerk said. “And they just really attacked everybody. The problem is [Ufford] hates cops, she hates government.”
“Yeah, Joy is not a friend of law enforcement,” agreed commissioner Nelson, prompting Lankford to say “yeah.” “Or the commissioners,” Nelson added.
Then, in front of the chief law enforcement officer in the county, Lankford accused the reporter of being “a pothead” insinuating a criminal drug offense that, if true, could land the reporter in jail.
It’s a charge Ufford denies. “I definitely take offense at being accused of a criminal activity that I don’t indulge in, especially when it’s made behind my back to the newly sworn-in sheriff.”
Lankford claimed Ufford was fired by the Examiner “after we filed a complaint with the Press Association about her tactics and her inflammatory reporting.” The Wyoming Press Association does not get involved in or have any authority over newspaper personnel.
The three county officials said they met separately with Roundup Editor Stephen Crane to complain about the newspaper’s county coverage. “We all met with him and I explained to him that he needs to help us be the peacemakers in the county,” Nelson recalled in the transcript. It is not clear in the transcript exactly who the commissioner is quoting when he recounts the rest of his conversation with the editor: “I said, did you report perhaps what had been said? Well maybe, but did you take it out of context? Yes, absolutely. What had been reported was taken out of context, and put in the newspaper in an inflammatory manner, for no other reason than just to stir shit up.”
Later, Lankford told the men that it is best not to read the two newspapers. “We’ve got to run the ship and we can’t run the ship if we’re fighting,” she said. “And it doesn’t make any sense for us to sit here and read that crap and then try to kill each other.”
In February depositions, Sublette County Commissioners Joel Bousman and James Latta accused the Roundup of focusing on negative issues “in order to sell newspapers.” Bousman admitted that’s what prompted the county to put notices in the Trader. Meanwhile, Latta estimated the change would save the county about $20,000 a year.
According to minutes from the commission’s meetings, Latta suggested the penny scheme to Dahl and made the motion to start publishing legal notices in the Trader.
Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, said even before Wyoming became a state, “the laws have been very strict that notices affecting people’s lives have to be published in a place where they can see them, and so far that’s newspapers.”
He added that the system is a “safety net” for local governments. “If they take action on a zoning ordinance and it’s not published as a public notice that says ‘this is going to be changed,’ then suddenly they can get sued,” the WPA official said.
“The cities and counties want to say ‘yes, we did publish that, and here’s your proof,'” Angell said.
If the Sublette County Commission loses the lawsuit, Angell said it would raise questions about whether almost a year’s worth of public hearings and bid selections were properly advertised. Conceivably months of public action could be voided.
In a WPA readership survey last year, 60 percent said they think it’s important for government to publish public notices in the newspaper.
The association didn’t ask people if they think it’s important to print such notices in shoppers. Who in Wyoming would be foolish enough to do that?
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact interim editor Matthew Copeland at email@example.com.