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Attorney for Casper Star-Tribune, WPA threatens legal action against Mills over legal notices

Mills City Council (Gregory Hirst, Oil City)

UPDATE: After this article was published on Thursday morning, Moats sent an email to Oil City News which included a petition he plans to file in district court on behalf of the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association if they don’t get assurances by Monday, July 19 that the Mills and Bar Nunn councils will rescind their respective ordinances exempting themselves from legal notice publishing requirements. Further information is available in this article, published Friday.

CASPER, Wyo. — In a letter sent to Mills Mayor Seth Coleman on June 30, Attorney Bruce Moats says that the Mills City Council’s recent decision to exempt the city from requirements to publish legal notices in newspapers under Wyoming’s Title 15 Statutes is illegal.

Moats said in the letter on behalf of the Casper Star Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association that “[a] municipality may not exempt itself from ‘statutes uniformly applicable to all cities and towns'” under the “home rule” provision. The letter was shared with Oil City News by City of Mills staff.

Both the Mills and Bar Nunn councils are leaning on the home rule provision in their recently passed resolutions exempting their respective municipal governments from statutes “requiring municipal corporations to provide notice of actions, hearings, and information by way of legal notices or publications in newspapers,” according to Attorney for both Mills and Bar Nunn Pat Holscher.

That home rule amendment states that “cities and towns are hereby empowered to determine their local affairs and government as established by ordinance passed by the governing body,” subject to a “legislative referendum.”

Holscher, Coleman and Bar Nunn Mayor Patrick Ford have all told Oil City News the move to exempt the municipalities from the legal notices requirement is a cost-saving measure.

“We’re doing it to cut costs,” Ford said in June. “We don’t want to spend $700 advertising a giant bid for a construction project in the newspaper when the same information can be disseminated on our website for free.”

“We’re still going to advertise. We go above and beyond … Anything the town does is on every bulletin board, it’s on our sign at the the fire station, it’s on our Facebook, it’s on our website, it’s in our monthly newsletters.”

Casper City Council member Kyle Gamroth said during a July 6 council meeting that he thinks the City of Casper should think about doing something similar, as the city pays about $70,000 per year publishing legal notices in physical newspapers.

Casper’s new budget authorizes a total of up to $147,046,429 in expenditures during fiscal year 2021-2022, which began on July 1. Were Casper to spend $70,000 on publishing legal notices this year, that would amount to less than 0.01% of the City of Casper’s expenditures for the year.

While Gamroth said he thought Casper should think about eliminating the legal notices requirement, he also said that he thought there were good points made in a Casper Star-Tribune editorial in response to Mills’ and Bar Nunn’s actions which argued that eliminating this requirement could diminish the transparency of local government.

Moats said in the letter to Coleman that the adoption of the ordinance exempting the City of Mills from the legal notices publishing requirements puts the city “at risk of legal challenges to actions it has taken where the notices are posted rather than published in a newspaper.”

Moats said that if Mills does not rescind the ordinance they passed by July 16, “my clients will be left with no choice but to consider legal action.”

Oil City has reached out to Moats, the Casper Star-Tribune’s publisher and the Wyoming Press Association requesting comment on the matter, but had not received responses as of 10:20 a.m. Thursday, July 15. Updates will be provided if further information becomes available.

Holscher said in a letter in response to Moats on behalf of Mills and Bar Nunn that neither municipality passed their respective ordinance to “somehow punish or be adverse to the Casper Star Tribune, or any other of the Wyoming Press Association newspapers.”

“We are certain that we can all agree that the purpose of notice requirements is to most effectively provide notice to the public of various governmental actions,” Holscher wrote, adding that Mills and Bar Nunn want to achieve this purpose “in the most cost efficient manner.”

Holscher said that the “evolution of technology,” which allows legal notices to also be posted online, “has ceased to make the newspaper the most efficient way of doing this.”

He said that the Casper Star-Tribune has sometimes faced delays in deliveries during winter snowstorms, with the paper printed at Adams Publishing Group’s press in Cheyenne.

“If statutes require that a legal notice run in a paper in circulation in a county, but the paper frequently simply doesn’t make it into the county at all, is the law really being complied with?” Holscher wrote.

He said that the Star-Tribune doesn’t regularly send a reporter to cover Mills and Bar Nunn council meetings. Holscher said the municipalities do not mean to criticize the Star-Tribune, recognizing that challenges the paper may be facing are a part of the upheaval to print newspapers across the country.

Holscher also said that the resolutions Mills and Bar Nunn have adopted do not require that the towns utilize alternative means of posting legal notices rather than publishing in a newspaper, but “simply allow for it.”

“It would seem to us that litigating your way into ongoing use of a declining means of delivering notice is a poor way to assure its ongoing viability,” Holscher wrote.

Holscher asked that Moats, the Casper Star-Tribune or the Wyoming Press Association offer some “constructive provisions” that would help make legal notices widely available to people in a way that is cost efficient.

He argued that with dissemination of information increasingly happening online, people may be less willing to pay for subscriptions to newspapers.

While readers may be frustrated with paywalls or having to pay subscriptions on some media sites, there are some potential upsides to subscription-based models.

“A subscription model provides a steady stream of income that is not reliant on [website] traffic,” SUNY-Oswego Assistant Professor Brian Moritz said in an article for NiemanLab in 2019. “In theory, this incentivizes better stories because publications don’t have to chase clicks.”

Moritz said that subscription models offer an “implicit promise … that you are getting something worth paying for, something you can’t get anywhere else.”

“The problem for newspapers is the idea of giving people something they have to have,” Moritz added. “Newspapers are mass media outlets, which mean they have to reach a broad audience.”

He said that if people are asked to pay subscriptions for multiple services, they will eventually be unable or unwilling to pay.

“Eventually, consumers’ subscription budgets hit a wall,” he wrote. “We can’t assume people are going to subscribe to everything. You can’t expect people to subscribe to their local paper (which is vital to democracy, we tell them) AND The New York Times AND the Washington Post (because Democracy Dies in the Dark) AND Netflix AND Hulu AND HBO Go AND The Athletic AND ESPN Plus AND their favorite podcast on Patreon AND …”

Many media sources rely on mixed revenue models which rely on both subscription and advertising revenue. During the COVID-19 pandemic, “local publishers had more news than ever to cover, with a lot less local advertising support,” according to the Knight Foundation.

“How did they survive and thrive during such a challenging year?” Mark Glaser with the Knight Foundation wrote in December 2020. “They made lemonade from pandemic lemons.”

“Some publishers were able to successfully leverage their increased COVID-19 coverage — often freely available outside paywalls — to sell more subscriptions. For-profit publishers, with an assist from the Local Media Association and Report for America, were able to take donations from readers, while nonprofit publishers looked to increase earned revenues from sponsorships and online events. Diverse-led startups, often struggling to get support and funding, have led the charge as new members of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).” (NOTE: Oil City News is a member of LION Publishers.)

Moats said in his June 30 letter that the Wyoming Press Association website posts legal notices online from newspapers across the state. He also said that newspapers’ own websites are “typically visited far more often than government websites.”

Moats also said that the Wyoming Supreme Court has rejected multiple attempts by municipalities to exempt themselves from laws “uniformly applicable” to municipalities across the state.

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