It doesn’t have headlines or news stories. It doesn’t offer paid subscriptions. It doesn’t have a masthead — the official documentation of who is publisher and editor and what its circulation figures are. One petition claims it doesn’t even have a reporter.
Yet the Sublette Trader — a publication that the newspaper industry calls a shopper — is the official newspaper of Sublette County. It is where the local government prints its calls for bids, minutes, announcements of upcoming hearings, and other public legal notices that must be published under Wyoming law.
When Sublette County chose to switch its ads to the Trader, it was the most direct challenge to Wyoming public notice laws in years. The legal action also suggests the county was retaliating against the Pinedale Roundup and its owners for robust news coverage. Regardless of the fight’s origins, the issue underscores, press advocates say, continuing challenges to statutes designed to promote public participation in government.
Choosing the Trader over the Pinedale Roundup will save the county advertising money, officials say. But the move cost the local government a lawsuit that Roundup publishers, Wyoming Newspapers Inc., filed last year. Sublette County might be gambling more than its attorney’s hours on the suit. A loss would raise questions about whether almost a year’s worth of public hearings and bid selections were properly advertised, Wyoming Press Association director Jim Angell said. Conceivably months of public action could be challenged.
Sublette County Commission Chairman Andy Nelson said the suit limits what he can say about the advertising switch. Nevertheless, expenses were the only consideration, he said.
“What I can tell you is that the Sublette County Commission chose to switch advertising newspapers because of economics and nothing more,” he said in an email. “We were paying $14.00 a column inch for our public notices, the highest in the state. Then as we renewed the contract with the newspaper, the rate went up to $16.75. We as a commission then made the change.”
The lawsuit against the county asserts that the Trader fails to meet the definition of a legal newspaper in Wyoming. Among other things, a county’s officially designated publication must be a “general circulation” newspaper, must have been published regularly for at least a year, and must have a paid circulation of at least 500.
The advertising switch came “amid concerns expressed by the commissioners and clerk about the coverage of county government by the Roundup,” the suit claims. At the same time, “the Roundup began raising concerns about the lack of transparency in county government.”
The county rejected those assertions in its response to the suit.
Worries echo statewide about public access
While the advertising fight is limited to Sublette County, the skirmish is one of many across Wyoming that critics say are limiting public access to government business. This year courts ruled against public access in three cases outlined in a Wyoming Tribune Eagle story highlighting press woes during newspaper sunshine week in mid-March.
Meantime some local governments continue the challenged practice of excluding the public from “subcommittee” meetings where public business is discussed. Among those is St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, where the Jackson Hole Daily recently reported “Hospital board appoints members to its closed committees.”
“We don’t necessarily have to make those public,” Medical Center board chairman Michael Tennican said of the subcommittee meetings. Wyoming press director Angell disagreed, saying case law has established that such subcommittees must heed the same open-meeting and public-record laws that apply to the parent board.
“This flies directly in the face of the intent of the Open Meetings Act,” he said. “By sealing off the process of how the decision is reached, the hospital is closing the doors on its constituents and keeping them from the thought that goes into how taxpayer resources are being used.”
On the statewide front the Wyoming Legislature this year refused to consider a bill to record legislative committee meetings held between lawmaking sessions. Lawmakers did amend the existing data-trespass law that’s been challenged as a violation of the first amendment right to free speech. Critics — Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, animal rights and a food-safety group — immediately challenged that amended Wyoming statute.
State administrators also have come under attack. Federal Environmental Protection Agency authorities criticized Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for not following public-involvement rules as it sought to amend clean-water standards. While the state disagreed with the EPA, it nevertheless re-opened public comment and is reviewing those as the federal government requested.
The public, and the press must remain vigilant against their right to access documents and attend meetings, said Robb Hicks, two-time former president of the Wyoming Press Association. “I would say it’s always being challenged,” he said of public access to government work. “These cases seem to ebb and flow,” with favorable outcomes for sunshine advocates — until recently.
“I think now we’re swinging the other way,” the publisher of the Buffalo Bulletin said. With “some case law going the other direction, [governments are] emboldened to try to perform more of the public‘s business in the dark and exclude access to public documents.”
Hicks did give credit to the University of Wyoming trustees for opening up their search for president last year.
“Wyoming newspapers, more than anyone else, have served as a watchdog for public access to public documents and access to open meetings,” he said. “Without sunshine, without that daylight, bad things happen in government.”
Not a sleepy one-horse town
Sublette newspaper reporters have had plenty to report on in what might seem to be an agricultural community sleeping off an energy-boom hangover. In Sublette County, headlines are easier to come by than methane emissions in a gas field.
Last year, for example, after defeating the county clerk’s husband in an election for sheriff, newly elected Stephen Haskell asked a judge to stop clerk Mary Lankford from what he said was her meddling with his department. The judge rejected that request.
Soon after he was elected, Haskell became known around the world as the Western sheriff who banned cowboy boots and hats in his department. Prosecutors charged him with improperly billing for new department uniforms. Now Gov. Matt Mead has acted to have Haskell removed. The Roundup and its sister publication the Sublette Examiner, also owned by Wyoming Newspapers, covered all of this.
Sublette County selected the Roundup as its official paper in July 2015, the lawsuit says, after the government solicited bids and received them from the Roundup and Examiner. But in October, the county moved its ads to the Trader, after receiving a later bid from that publication.
Sublette County “will save approximately $20,000 annually by placing legal notices in the Sublette Trader rather than the Pinedale Roundup or Sublette Examiner,” county officials said in their response to the suit. Regardless of savings, the Trader doesn’t meet the definition of a newspaper, the suit says. In addition, the Trader is not a newspaper of “general circulation” as established by case law, the suit says.
The Trader made a bogus attempt to establish a paid circulation, according to the suit and the Wyoming Press Association. “Sublette Trader, after discussing the possibility of being designated as the official newspaper with county officials, began ‘charging’ one cent for copies that it placed at various businesses and other locations around the county,” the suit says.
“Gimmick circulation does not count,” press director Angell said of the 1 cent charge. Circulation requirements were established to ensure that county residents and others receive — and can subscribe to by mail to get — public notices. Numbers are verifiable by newspapers’ paid-circulation and subscription information.
The suit calls the Trader a shopper, saying it “has and continues to contain primarily advertisements, and employs no reporters or photographers.” The April 7 issue of the Sublette Trader included two items titled “Press Release” in its 10 pages. An earlier issue also had a column about a county resident being appointed to a state board. The publication’s website describes the Trader as “a weekly advertising publication.”
The county responded that Wyoming laws do not statutorily define “newspaper” or “paper” and that there is no consensus as to what constitutes a “newspaper” for legal publications. Among other arguments, the county also said clerk Lankford did not raise questions about newspaper coverage as alleged. Lankford did not return a phone message seeking comment for this story and was unavailable despite several calls.
Sublette Trader owner Lwyn Dahl would not answer questions other than to say he and the Trader had been dismissed from the legal action. The county response said the Trader is distributed at more than 80 sites.The suit is scheduled for a bench trial on August 8 in front of District Judge Jeffrey Donnell.
Disclosure: The author represented the Jackson Hole News on the Wyoming Press Association board of directors in the 1990s. WyoFile is an associate member of the Wyoming Press Association — Ed.
— 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