Visibility is the driving force behind the consideration of Mills, Wyoming, to move all of its required public legal notices to an electronic news publication from the Casper Star-Tribune print newspaper, Mayor Leah Juarez said.
While it bucks decades of tradition, and potentially state public notice law, the town can reach more people through electronic methods than in a print newspaper, the mayor said.
“If we look at it through the lens of public information and access to that information, we no longer feel a printed newspaper … (is) the best way to inform our residents,” Juarez said. “We believe it’s important enough to take this all the way to the finish line.”
Lee Publications, the parent company of the Casper Star-Tribune, is petitioning Natrona County District Court Judge Kerri Johnson to force the towns of Mills and Bar Nunn to publish all their public notices in the Star-Tribune, their newspaper of record.
Next week, the Mills and Bar Nunn city councils will consider separate resolutions and ordinances that define the word “newspaper” on their terms, which includes digital publications. Juarez said the drive to establish these laws came at Johnson’s recommendation.
“She suggested that maybe Mills and Bar Nunn create something like this, a resolution, because there is some of that freedom within the statute to identify our own source of how we’re going to notify the public,” Juarez said. “It was interpreted that if we did that the lawsuit could potentially go away.”
If Johnson rules in favor of the cities, it would create a legal precedent where municipalities no longer have an obligation to print public notices in hard copy newspapers anymore. If she rules in favor of the Star-Tribune, Juarez said the current law will be expanded to interpreting cities and towns will also have to publish their meeting minutes in a newspaper of record.
“It’s already extremely costly to print these public notices,” Juarez said. “On one hand, yes, the public should be notified. But on the other hand, should we be funding these business models that are dying and are no longer applicable to the times?”
The towns of Bar Nunn and Mills have brought a counterclaim to the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Wyoming statutes that require publication of certain public notices in newspapers.
A representative for Lee did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment.
Small Towns, Big Implications
Bruce Moats, the attorney for the Star-Tribune in the case, told Cowboy State Daily in August that the lawsuit will set an important legal precedent for other towns and cities throughout Wyoming and their commitment to publishing notices in local newspapers.
The publishing of public notices has always been an important piece of revenue for print newspapers, and as print advertising has shrunk, keeping these notices has become increasingly vital. Small weekly papers are particularly dependent on the revenue from public notices.
“At a time when the newspapers around the state are facing financial constraints, if the court rules against us it will result in even less revenue going to them,” he said.
Since there is only one newspaper in Natrona County, Bar Nunn argues in its proposed ordinance that it is held captive by the Star-Tribune and could be forced to pay any fee the business requires to publish its legal filings.
“Why is the government being forced to support a private business?” Juarez questioned.
Juarez said it’s not the intention of her city to avoid printing public notices and that they simply want to move them to a different journal of record where they will be seen by more people. She said that the Star-Tribune has fewer than 50 hard copy paper subscribers in Mills, and a similar number of digital subscribers there.
She provided Cowboy State Daily with an email from the Star-Tribune stating that it would be unable to print a legal notice for eight days after the request was made by Mills. The Star-Tribune is printed in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, three days a week and mailed to subscribers.
“They can’t even facilitate the ability for us to make our deadlines,” Juarez said.
The Star-Tribune has argued in court filings that Wyoming law is clear in requiring municipalities to publish legal notices in a local paper of record, but Mills and Bar Nunn both passed ordinances in 2021 designed to exempt them from publishing in a newspaper and to instead put their public notices online.
Juarez said they are interested in publishing their legal notices in an online news site such as Oil City News and Cowboy State Daily. If the resolution passes in Mills, Juarez said the town will make this change immediately unless a court strikes it down.
Dale Bohren worked for the Star-Tribune from 2004-2021, including a stint as publisher of the newspaper, and is a current member of its editorial board. He told Cowboy State Daily the attempt to pass these ordinances is particularly concerning considering that the town of Mills is the only municipality to be found guilty in state history for violating the Wyoming Public Records Act around 2010, when it didn’t publish notice about a public meeting.
“The town that has a history of not publishing information about meetings in public is doing this,” he said. “It’s kind of like the fox in the hen house.”
Bohren believes towns and municipalities should go above and beyond to publish their public notices even if it costs a little bit more to do so.
“It’s always better for the citizens of a community to have their city go above and beyond to do things with the most honesty as possible rather than just go through the motions,” he said.
Across The Finish Line
Patrick Holscher, the attorney representing Bar Nunn and Mills, has argued in court filings that the Wyoming public notice statutes have become too subjective and antiquated in an era of digital news to determine definitively what constitutes a newspaper.
“We feel in Mills that it is important to take this all the way to the finish line because the language here in the statute is so outdated that it no longer applies,” Juarez said.
After Mills and Bar Nunn published their 2021 ordinances, the Star-Tribune filed a court petition asking they be found unconstitutional. That case was dismissed in late 2021 after a judge found the Star-Tribune lacked standing but the dispute didn’t end there.
The Star-Tribune refiled the case in early 2022, arguing that the paper’s monetary interest in printing the public notices is its legal standing.
A Higher Purpose
Juarez said Mills continues to pursue the litigation because it believes state law needs to be updated to reflect modern publishing. She plans to bring the issue to state legislators as well to make a legal change to the law. The Wyoming Legislature last tackled the issue in 2021, but no changes were made at that time.
The requirement to publish legal notices in newspapers has been debated in Wyoming for as long as Moats can remember, he said.
Is It Better?
Some have argued that publishing public notices in a digital medium is a less secure and permanent place of record than what is provided with a published paper copy. Juarez argues the opposite, saying that cities and towns and municipalities are still required to keep their own paper copies of the public notices. She also believes online publications are much easier to search through and access than paper editions.
“You can search for a term in all sorts of notices that you maybe didn’t even know happened,” she said. “We’re finding the paper, the printed version itself, is actually a lot more restrictive as far as ease of getting to that information.”
In the Bar Nunn ordinance, the town commits to publishing the notices on their own website and keeping a paper copy of the electronic notice for five years.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.