Editorial:

Legal notices belong in your newspapers

Posted

For all the proclamations about the death of newspapers, we believe they continue to play a critical role in communities across the state of Wyoming, remaining an essential source of information.

That’s one reason why it’s been disheartening to watch some state lawmakers try to cut newspapers — and their readers — out of a part of the democratic process.

In addition to the news stories the Tribune writes each week, we also print public notices. Often referred to as “legals,” these notices include things like local governments’ meeting minutes, public officials’ salaries and bid advertisements for significant projects.

The tradition of publishing public notices in newspapers is almost as old as our country itself. In 1789, the first U.S. Congress required the secretary of state to publish all “bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes” in at least three papers.

The reason for this is clear: Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing. And it builds trust and confidence when taxpayers have a printed record of what their officials are up to, carried in an independent publication.

But some legislators are pushing to end parts of this long-running practice. House Bill 201 would have allowed city and county governments to simply publish notices on their own websites, but it was nixed by the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee Monday morning; we were pleased to see local Reps. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, vote against the proposal.

However, House Bill 242 — which calls for the creation of a website to house all of the state’s public notices — is still kicking.

Building an online, one-stop shop for Wyoming’s legal notices is a terrific idea, but it’s not a new one. The Wyoming Press Association already maintains a searchable database containing all the legal notices published by the state’s newspapers — including those that appear in the Tribune. They’re available online at www.publicnoticeads.com/WY/.

HB 242 isn’t about print versus the internet. Rather, it’s wasting taxpayers’ money to set up an independent, online service that already exists.

“It is hard to believe the Republican Wyoming State Legislature would actually consider taking a service to the public already being provided by private Wyoming Main Street businesses (newspapers) and moving it into the public sector,” said Bob Bonnar, lobbyist for the Wyoming Press Association. “Why would they want to shrink the private sector and move another responsibility to the public sector? This is growth of government, plain and simple.”

The authors of HB 242 apparently think the Secretary of State’s Office could build and run this public notice repository for the low, one-time price of $14,500, as that’s the only funding included in the bill. But we suspect the actual bill would climb well beyond that figure.

Consider that, after various groups and individuals called on the State of Wyoming to detail how it spends its money, then-State Auditor Cynthia Cloud told the Sheridan Press that her office would first need a $435,000 software upgrade. (That upgrade is on top of the roughly $5.3 million a year that the auditor’s office is paying a Quebec-based company to “host and maintain the state’s financial and human resource/payroll systems.”)

It seems doubtful that crafting and running a website for all of Wyoming’s more than 100 towns, cities and counties will only cost $14,500.

We also find it hard to believe that many citizens will regularly visit a state website and scroll through pages of public notices looking for their community’s legals. How many of you have checked www.publicnoticeads.com/WY/ to see how much the superintendent is making or to read the Park County Commission’s minutes?

However, it’s much more likely that as you’ve flipped through the pages of this newspaper, you’ve noticed a legal notice that caught your eye — whether it was a list of unpaid property taxes or a call for bids on a major public project.

That’s the beauty of notices printed in local newspapers: They help get the government’s actions in front of their constituents. When the notices are published locally, they’re reaching the people most likely to realize that these bits of dry legalese matter — laying out hikes in utility fees or warning of a critical upcoming meeting.

While the government would grow under House Bill 242, newspapers would shrink. Public notices provide revenue for the Tribune, as well as the many small newspapers serving communities around Wyoming.

If you as a reader value your local newspaper, please let our lawmakers know that it’s important to keep public notices in our pages.

We appreciate your support — and we will continue to work for you, because we believe you have the right to know.

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