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Judge dismisses lawsuit against Mills and Bar Nunn over newspaper notices

Stacks of Casper Star-Tribune newspapers sit in a storage bin. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — District Court Judge Dan Forgey issued an oral judgement from the bench last week in support of the Town of Bar Nunn and City of Mills’s motion to dismiss a suit against them filed by the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Press Association, according to the municipalities’ attorney Pat Holscher.

The suit emerged this summer after Bar Nunn joined Mills in passing ordinances exempting themselves from state statutes “requiring municipal corporations to provide notice of actions, hearings, and information by way of legal notices or publications in newspapers.”

The Title 15 Statutes pertain to notices of intent to adopt ordinances, issue bonds, foreclose on properties, and bid for the contracting of public services. Some of the provisions require notices to run “in a newspaper of general circulation” for a certain length of time.

Holscher said the municipalities cited the “home rule” provision, a 1972 amendment to to Article 13 of the Wyoming Constitution, in passing the resolutions. That 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”.

However, Attorney Bruce Moats, who represents the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association, wrote that the home rule provision does not allow a municipality to “exempt itself from ‘statutes uniformly applicable to all cities and towns.’”

Holscher argued that the that plaintiffs in the case (the Trib and WPA) had “no standing” in the case, as their ability to report was not precluded by the municipalities’ actions. The plaintiff’s lack of standing as a means for dismissal was cited by Forgey as precedent in Wyoming Supreme Court case law.

Citing concerns over government transparency, town officials have said that they continue to advertise by other means.

“We’re still going to advertise,” Bar Nunn Mayor Patrick Ford said in June when the town passed its ordinance.

“We go above and beyond,” Ford said. “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.”

A City of Mills release Tuesday praised the decision, saying that “publishing public notices in newspapers has become an antiquated, ineffective, and expensive way to inform the public in the age of electronic news publication, electronic media, and information distribution.”

Moats, who represents the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association, has stated that the lawsuit would be refiled, according to the Mills press release.