CASPER, Wyo. — By adopting revised ordinances, City of Mills and Town of Bar Nunn officials are continuing efforts to change the way their municipalities provide legal notices to the public.
The Town of Bar Nunn agenda for Sept. 19 includes the first reading and vote on “An Ordinance Regarding Legal Advertisements.” Ordinances become law when passed on three readings.
Lee Enterprises, owner of the Casper Star-Tribune, is suing Mills and Bar Nunn for intending to stop publishing in print newspapers. Lee Enterprises, backed by the Wyoming Press Association, maintained in its original lawsuit two years ago that legal notices must be placed in a print newspaper, and the Casper Star-Tribune is the only example in Natrona County.
The first case was dismissed in November 2021.
“Now we’re on the second one,” City of Mills Mayor Leah Juarez said by phone Tuesday.
Juarez announced the City of Mills’s renewed intention to elect an electronic journal as its dedicated newspaper by email Sept. 18.
The municipalities have been involved in litigation since summer 2021, when Bar Nunn joined Mills in passing ordinances exempting the entities from state statutes “requiring municipal corporations to provide notice of actions, hearings, and information by way of legal notices or publications in newspapers.”
By state statute, municipalities must inform the public through paid legal notices in official newspapers whenever they intend to adopt ordinances, issue bonds, foreclose on properties and invite bids for public service contracts. Some of the provisions require notices to run “in a newspaper of general circulation” for a certain length of time.
Having limited options does not sit well with Bar Nunn and Mills.
“Every municipality has the right to dictate where they put their notices,” Juarez said.
Backing a conviction that online or electronic news media are more relevant today than newsprint, Juarez said they are prepared to take the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“We are confident the way of accessing information now and into the future is best with platforms such as [electronic journalism],” Juarez said by email Sept. 18.
Using ordinances reworded from those adopted in 2021, both councils are considering adopting respective ordinances that exempt the municipalities from legal notice publishing requirements.
When addressing the lawsuit in 2021, Pat Holscher, attorney for Mills and Bar Nunn, said the municipalities cited the “home rule” provision, a 1972 amendment to Article 13 of the Wyoming Constitution, in passing the ordinances. The amendment says “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, representing 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.’”
Juarez said the City of Mills has decided to use an electronic journal such as Oil City News to publish its legal notices.
“It’s important to the city that our residents have the best access to information, and we feel that electronic media … is the best avenue,” she wrote in the Sept. 18 email.
State law, outlining requirements for publishing legal notices in newspapers, states that any legal notice, printing or advertising required by law is invalid unless published in a newspaper that has been issued at least once each week for 52 consecutive weeks before the first legal notice publication, has a paid circulation of at least 500 and each page is not smaller than 10 by 12.5 inches.
“The issue is, ‘What is a newspaper?’” Juarez said by telephone Sept. 19. “It [legal advertisement] is supposed to be intended for ease or access of information.”
According to Juarez, the Star-Tribune is published in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and the newspaper is mailed to Mills subscribers.
Fewer than 50 residents receive the print newspaper, she said.
“We argue that’s no longer how people get their information,” Juarez said. “We feel electronic journalism is the best way for our residents to get information.”
She pointed out that most local online news platforms don’t charge a membership or subscription fee, whereas reading legal notices in a newspaper requires a person to purchase the publication.
In addition, she objected to a system in which most municipalities have just one source available for legal notice advertising, forcing them to fund one type of business over another — “whether or not it’s for transparency, and we disagree with it,” she said.
Juarez said for now the City of Mills still publishes its notices in the Star-Tribune.
In November 2021, District Court Judge Dan Forgey issued an oral judgment from the bench in support of the Town of Bar Nunn and City of Mills’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit against them filed by the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Press Association.
At the time, Moats stated the lawsuit would be refiled.
As proposed, Bar Nunn’s revised ordinance says that instead of placing legal notices in a newspaper, the town will place its legal advertisements on the town’s website and three designated public places in Bar Nunn, including the Bar Nunn Town Hall and the Bar Nunn Fire Department.
Juarez said the City of Mills proposed ordinance wording will be just “a touch” different.
The hope is the municipalities can resolve the lawsuit by identifying their public notice sources, Juarez said. Mills has rewritten its ordinance according to how it’s interpreted the judge’s comments.
“If we can identify our electronic journal as well as the [sites for] three postings, then this lawsuit could go away,” she said.
A copy of the Town of Bar Nunn’s proposed ordinance regarding legal advertisements is below: