CHEYENNE – In 1789, The very first session of the U.S. Congress required the Secretary of State to publish all orders, votes, etc. in at least three well-circulated newspapers. Our first lawmakers recognized that a government is made up of fallible humans that if not held to rigid transparency guidelines, might be tempted to cover up an issue that would be detrimental to their own best interests.
Now that transparency may be under attack. House Bill 201, introduced by Rep. David Burkhart, Jr. (R) of Carbon County, would change the current state statute which dictates that municipalities and county governments must select a paper of record and publish the minutes to all regular and special meetings or the governing body, as well as the names of all ordinances passed. If the bill passes, it would become optional for the governing bodies to name an official paper of record, and the bodies would have the choice to post the minutes on their own websites or physically in their respective clerks’ office.
According to Bob Bonnar, lobbyist for the Wyoming Press Association and editor-publisher of the Newcastle News Letter Journal, the bill is an outright attack on the newspaper industry. Bonner said he does not know why the change is being discussed.
“I’m really surprised by it and concerned about it because three of the sponsors on the senate side are from the Senate Corporations Committee, which has worked for nine months, I thought, to improve government transparency,” Bonnar said. “It really is a surprise to me. It’s obviously an attack on newspapers by associations that represent government official who don’t like newspapers doing their jobs. It’s an effort to weaken newspapers and I don’t know how far they intend to go with it, to be honest with you.”
Experiments in having notices only available online have been attempted in recent years but have not always gone as planned. In August 2012, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality approved a general permit to allow a group of farmers to build a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation in rural Newton County. New public notice rules approved by the EPA allowed ADEQ to only publish the notice on its website, instead of the local newspaper. Although it was posted for 30 days, the agency did not receive a single comment or objection. However, once the citizens discovered a hog farm was about to be built near their homes, the community erupted in anger. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent defending and settling lawsuits filed over the hog farm. If ADEQ had spent just a few hundred dollars publishing notices in a local newspaper, it would have been more visible to the community and the conflict may have been avoided.
“I think it’s a positive move,” said local Councilman Bill Britz. “There is a lot of expense with notices that can be done with other methods and be just as transparent. Vouchers could be presented on our website. Citizens can come to Town Hall and look at any of that or ask a clerk for a copy.”
Yes, residents are allowed to go to the Town Hall or Courthouse to peruse the notices and meeting minutes, as long as they go when those buildings are open. Yes, a lot of households in Platte County have access to the internet, but not all. According to the Pew Research Center, in the U.S., 34 percent of adults over 65 don’t use the internet. Low income households are more likely to not be online, more so in rural areas like Platte County.
Many notices and events are unexpectedly discovered when people read the newspaper. Those readers then pass along the information to friends, family and coworkers; and the information continues spreading exponentially. When going online, surfers are searching for specific information and are less likely to “fortuitously” come across something they aren’t looking for. And government websites are not usually the easiest sites to navigate.
MeasuringU, a quantitative research firm based in Denver, Colo., did a study on how usable state government websites were for the general public. The study found most government websites have an overwhelming amount of information presented, making it difficult to find what users were looking for. The information was poorly prioritized and the names of links were misleading, the study found.
Newspaper is forever. It is printed, kept by some individuals, and archived by state and national entities. Once it’s printed, newsprint can’t be altered. Not so with documents online. Modifying dates, specifics, or names is easily handled online without any evidence it was ever changed. In addition, hackers and ransomware scams put documents that are only online at risk of being completely erased. Public notices printed in the Platte County Record-Times are posted online for free on the website. As a neutral third party, newspapers have no vested interest in altering the content.
“The Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming School Boards Association consistently lobby for this. Year after year, it seems like newspapers have to defend their very existence. Basically, (the groups) are bureaucracies in the purest sense of the word. They don’t actually represent any people, they represent elected officials and public employees and they lobby pretty vigorously in the Wyoming State Legislature. They’ve got significant budgets and significant relationships and it’s a constant pressure from those organizations to weaken, and I think in the endgame, to eliminate newspapers in their communities.”
The largest issue at stake is government transparency. Requiring independent, third-party newspapers to ensure public notices run in accordance with the law helps prevent government officials from hiding information they would prefer the public not see.
“This bill is bittersweet for me because I enjoy reading the newspaper each week and if it is passed, it would cause a lot of harm to the newspaper. But on the other hand, if publishing the notices wasn’t required by law, it would save the Town money,” said Mayor Brandon Graves. “It’s fiscally responsible to save the taxpayer’s money. But the fees to the newspaper are a very small percentage of the Town budget.”
Proposals to limit government notices to online are only lobbied for by elected officials and government employees – rarely members of the general public. This bill could put government accountability in jeopardy.
Torrington Telegram reporter Tom Milstead contributed to this report.