Your right to know is under attack

One of the buzzwords of the 2018 election in Wyoming was the word transparency. Many candidates spoke of the need for more transparency in state government, especially when it comes to how our state spends its taxpayer money.

Post-election, that campaign issue was moved to action by newly elected Governor Mark Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines, who put their money where their mouth was, so to speak, by forming a new working group called the Financial Transparency Working Group, which met for the first time two weeks ago in Cheyenne.

That group of elected and community leaders and a member of the media has much work to do, and it will likely be a long process, but it’s a very positive step forward for the people of Wyoming.

But while the governor and others are seeking to shine light on government in Wyoming, others are working to dim the light of transparency and accountability in regard to the workings of government, especially at the local level.

Recent bills sponsored by a few legislators work against the very effort to open government to the people that Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines have championed, a transparency process supported by organizations on both ends of the political spectrum.

It’s dismaying. And it’s dangerous.

The Lovell Chronicle, and other newspapers across Wyoming, publish legal public notices, commonly called “legals.” These paid notices can be found in every edition of the paper and include valuable information like bid notices, public officials’ salaries and local government meeting minutes. Legals have been around as long as our nation has had newspapers, and they’re important, because they are printed as an easy to access and permanent record of government action in an independent publication.

But some legislators want to remove public notices from the newspapers. House Bill 201 would have allowed Wyoming cities, towns and counties to publish “public” notices on their own websites – at their own discretion. That means local government would control its own message and history, maintaining the ability to even go back in and spin an issue in a different way after receiving feedback, and publishing notices when they get around to it.

You may have noticed that many town websites, for instance, haven’t been updated in months, even years. But when required to publish notices in newspapers in a timely fashion, citizens have quick access to the workings of government.

Fortunately, House Bill 201 went down in flames Monday morning in the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee on a 2-7 vote, and we commend and thank Rep. Jamie Flitner of Shell for voting against the bill.

But another bill, House Bill 242, would create an official state website for public notices and require them to be published with the state, “rather than in a newspaper,” as the bill summary states. That bill was still alive as of Wednesday, sponsored by Sen. Tara Nethercott of Cheyenne and Rep. Carl “Bunky” Loucks of Casper. That bill has been assigned to the House Corporations Committee. It needs to be defeated.

Bills like this may seem reasonable on the surface. After all, what’s wrong with publishing notices on the Internet? But here’s the issue: Wyoming law already calls for public notices to be published in newspapers AND on government websites as part of a deal the Wyoming Press Association reached years ago while working with the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Legislators praised the WPA for working with the town and county advocacy organizations, and a compromise acceptable to all was reached.

Right now, a citizen can go to the Wyoming Press Association Website – www.wyopress.org — and find all public notices published by our state’s newspapers via a link to the WPA sponsored, searchable website www.publicnoticeads.com. Or a citizen can pick up a copy of the newspaper, or read our E-edition on the computer.

Some public officials complain that publishing public notices is expensive, but the expense is a tiny portion of the local government’s budget. An average of less than one half of 1 percent is currently being spent to provide wide access to the workings of government. And if officials think publishing public notices is expensive, wait until they see the cost of providing security for and maintaining and updating a government website, which many municipalities don’t maintain well now. The expense of a statewide website would be astronomical.

And why would our Republican led legislature consider taking a valuable service already being maintained by Wyoming Main Street businesses – newspapers – and turn it over to the government? Why grow government and shrink the private sector? It makes no sense.

Bills like this are, in essence, an attempt to set up a government controlled, state-run news service. Where have we seen that happen before? Do we want to leave it up to the government to verify what public officials are doing in lieu of a free and independent press?

Simply put, printed legal notices in Wyoming’s newspapers provide a permanent, easily accessible and independent record of government business in local communities, a record of what government is doing with our citizens’ resources.

Putting public notices only on government websites is akin to having the fox guard the henhouse. Is that the kind of transparency candidates talked about during the campaign and enacted after taking office?

No, it’s not.

Such bills are a direct assault on local control, which most elected leaders will tell you they favor. Centralizing power and the control of information in Cheyenne is no better at the state level than power concentrated in Washington D.C. at the federal level.

We urge our own local town and county leaders, local legislators Rep. Flitner and Sen. RJ Kost and our citizen readers to continue to fight for transparency in government at the most basic level by urging defeat of bills that take public notices out of your local newspaper.

We thank you for joining us to provide to you a very basic right under our form of government – the right to know.

– David Peck