By Bryon Gather
Uinta County Herald
Via Wyoming News Exchange
EVANSTON — The Uinta County Herald was met with confusion when asking Wyoming Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, why she co-sponsored a bill last week that would allow municipalities to be their own watchdogs and publish public notices on their own websites.
“If I’m listed on there, it’s totally in error,” Schuler said Monday morning. The freshman legislator seemed baffled, and said she absolutely supports newspapers and believes local governments should continue to be required to publish public notices in local newspapers.
The Herald reached out to Schuler to inform her that our staff was working on an editorial that criticized HB 201 and that criticized Schuler for signing on to the bill last week. The bill would allow municipalities the option of continuing to designate an official newspaper and continue publishing notices, such as expenditures and minutes of public meetings, in that paper or post them on the city’s, town’s or county’s websites.
Schuler said she meant to cosponsor a completely different bill using a digital system. Bill sponsors can send digital requests to other legislators, but Rep. Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston, said that’s not extremely common, and it only allows for up to 15 co-sponsors.
The legislature wasn’t in session Monday, but Schuler said once she got to a computer, she realized the error. She also said she will always take responsibility for her mistakes and that she’ll have her name removed from the bill, which has been referred to the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife, and Cultural Resources Committee.
“I guess doing everything electronically works most of the time,” she said, “but I should have double checked each day. I am totally in support of cities and counties using newspapers rather than websites for their reporting and minutes. I think my mistake in hitting the wrong button pretty much solidifies the importance of paper over electronics.”
Piiparinen told the Herald Monday that he does not support HB 201.
“I’m against it,” he said. “I think we need a third party. I don’t trust municipalities to do all that … I don’t know how transparent that would be. It costs them something, but that’s the price we have to pay for transparency.”
He said sponsorships of bills aren’t usually mistakes, but he prefers to gather sponsors in person, rather than through an electronic system that’s been used for the past two years.
“Usually those things aren’t in error,” he said. “I know she’s new there, but usually they don’t put people’s names on them unless they sign the bill or sign the jacket. … Most of what I’ve seen [is] people carry the bill around and get signatures, that’s always the way I’ve done it.”
He said that way he can gather more support — he’s got 20 co-sponsors on his own transparency bill — and “sometimes it’s harder for them to say ‘no’ when it’s face to face,” Piiparinen said.
News Letter Journal Publisher Bob Bonnar of Newcastle, who also lobbies for transparency for the Wyoming Press Association, said HB 201 is bad for Wyoming for many reasons.
Firstly, he said, he and other leaders in the newspaper industry were tasked by the legislature six years ago to meet with the several associations around Wyoming, such as the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming School Board Association, to implement a plan to lower publication costs for local governments.
He said they eliminated antiquated notices and reduced the number of times other notices must be printed in newspapers. One change dropped the requirement to publish city and county salaries from three times to just once each year. He said those negotiations six years ago saved local governments a half-million dollars a year.
Bonnar is particularly concerned with HB146, which would allow cities and counties to publish only the position and salary, leaving public employee names private.
“School districts in Wyoming do not publish names with salaries,” Bonnar said, adding that while cities and counties in Wyoming have been able to keep their expenses under control for the most part, school districts just keep spending more and more money.
He said that lack of transparency is “directly related to the skyrocketing costs of education.”
Bonnar referenced a 2016 study by the Brookings Institution that found “that in towns where newspapers have closed their doors, spending, salaries and expenses just skyrocket.”
In addition, several government agencies have tried to establish amounts to charge newspapers and the public to retrieve public records, citing cost and lack of staffing as the main reasons. Bonnar said there’s no way municipalities could handle posting public notices without those added expenses that they’re already complaining about.
Plus, he said, without hard copies of public notices that newspapers provide, it wouldn’t take much for corruption to creep into the process.
“If it’s all digital,” he said, “one bad actor in government could do incredible harm.”
He also wonders why local governments would want this added responsibility.
“It makes absolutely no sense to me why cities or counties would want this,” Bonnar said, referring to HB 201, “unless it is to be less transparent and less accountable to the people in their communities. … They can’t do it cheaper than newspapers can. They’ve already admitted it.”