By Bill Sniffin, publisher
Using both tight budgets and a Covid pandemic as excuses, the dumb idea of limiting printed public notices in Wyoming newspapers has reared its ugly head again in the Legislature in Cheyenne.
Wyoming citizens should be both outraged at this proposal plus the fact that their taxes are paying for the lobbyists who are pushing for it. Crazy.
Here is a fact: There are some people in government who like working out of the public’s eye. They do not like reporters or, worse yet, pesky citizens poking their noses into their work. To many of our city and county officials, the idea of not having to disclose what they are doing to the public sounds like a dream come true.
Here is another fact: The cost of printing public notices is a tiny fraction of city or county budgets. Often it is less than one-half of 1% of their budgets. Wouldn’t you assume that letting the public know what its government is doing is worth being publicized? Especially in difficult times?
Here is the most disturbing fact: The lobbyists who are working to convince the legislators to do this are being paid for by your tax dollars. Just about every town, city, and county in Wyoming pays dues to organizations (the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and Wyoming County Commissioner Association). These dues pay for lobbyists who then lobby the legislature to pass laws covering up what they are doing. This has a foul smell.
Luckily, not all legislators are fooled by these arguments by lobbyists.
All citizens in Wyoming should be upset about this and should contact their legislators and tell them this bill (SF 17) is bad legislation. Urge your lawmaker to not be an enemy of the people by hiding what the government is doing from its citizens.
As recently as the 2018 gubernatorial race, transparency was one of the biggest issues of the campaign. Following that race, the new Gov. Mark Gordon and the new State Auditor Kristi Racines put into place some amazing new systems to help citizens find out where their money was being spent on state government.
As much as their efforts were a forward move for Wyoming, bills like this one are backward moves. We are better than this.
Public notices are the best way for the state’s public entities — groups allegedly working on behalf of the people who pay their bills — to report on what they’ve been up to. The notices they put in the state’s newspapers are their reports to their stockholders.
They cover salaries, minutes of what has been done in their meetings, public calls for bids so the public can see what work is being planned, plans for zoning so people know if a livestock barn can open up next to their homes, and many other items.
Public notices are put into newspapers because newspapers are tangible, permanent things. They don’t change at someone’s whim. They are a permanent record of our world. You can go back to the 1890s and find records of what happened in Cheyenne. Public notices published in the 1950s have been read in court as recently as the 1990s.
Public notices are put into newspapers because newspapers are invited into the home. Placing notices into a newspaper allows them to be seen by even the most passive reader.
Placing notices on websites makes it much less likely they will be seen by the casual reader. Very few people peruse their local government’s website for fun. It is a fact that the most popular government website in any community has far less views than the local newspaper has subscribers — or even than the local newspaper’s website has views.
When you’re confronted by an unprecedented budget crisis, the worst thing you can do is make government spending less obvious. WCCA and WAM are arguing that it isn’t “fair” that they have to publish salaries and minutes when school districts follow less stringent rules. It’s crazy that it hasn’t occurred to the legislature that school spending has been harder to control – in large part – because school districts don’t have to publish things like minutes.
This ill-timed piece of legislation comes at a time when the people need to know more about what their government agencies are doing – not less.
Citizens should let their legislators know they oppose this attack on transparency.
The legislative committee that passed this bill should be ashamed for contributing to future cover-ups.
(Note: Sniffin’s columns appear in many newspapers in the state. He provides those columns for free.)