In pinedale, if it looks like a duck it’s … a newspaper! _ wyofile

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr. | April 12, 2016

It doesn’t have headlines or news stories. It doesn’t offer paid subscriptions. It doesn’t have a masthead — the official documentation of who is publisher and editor and what its circulation figures are. One petition claims it doesn’t even have a reporter.

Yet the Sublette Trader — a publication that the newspaper industry calls a shopper — is the official newspaper of Sublette County. It is where the local government prints its calls for bids, minutes, announcements of upcoming hearings, and other public legal notices that must be published under Wyoming law.

When Sublette County chose to switch its ads to the Trader, it was the most direct challenge to Wyoming public notice laws in years. The legal action also suggests the county was retaliating against the Pinedale Roundup and its owners for robust news coverage. Regardless of the fight’s origins, the issue underscores, press advocates say, continuing challenges to statutes designed to promote public participation in government.

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Choosing the Trader over the Pinedale Roundup will save the county advertising money, officials say. But the move cost the local government a lawsuit that Roundup publishers, Wyoming Newspapers Inc., filed last year. Sublette County might be gambling more than its attorney’s hours on the suit. A loss would raise questions about whether almost a year’s worth of public hearings and bid selections were properly advertised, Wyoming Press Association director Jim Angell said. Conceivably months of public action could be challenged.

Sublette County’s seat, Pinedale, boasts two newspapers and an advertising shopper, which county officials chose for publication of its official minutes, bid requests and other legal advertising. The newspaper owners have sued, claiming the move violates laws designed to keep residents and subscribers informed. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Sublette County Commission Chairman Andy Nelson said the suit limits what he can say about the advertising switch. Nevertheless, expenses were the only consideration, he said.

“What I can tell you is that the Sublette County Commission chose to switch advertising newspapers because of economics and nothing more,” he said in an email. “We were paying $14.00 a column inch for our public notices, the highest in the state. Then as we renewed the contract with the newspaper, the rate went up to $16.75. We as a commission then made the change.”

The lawsuit against the county asserts that the Trader fails to meet the definition of a legal newspaper in Wyoming. Among other things, a county’s officially designated publication must be a “general circulation” newspaper, must have been published regularly for at least a year, and must have a paid circulation of at least 500.

The advertising switch came “amid concerns expressed by the commissioners and clerk about the coverage of county government by the Roundup,” the suit claims. At the same time, “the Roundup began raising concerns about the lack of transparency in county government.”

The county rejected those assertions in its response to the suit. Worries echo statewide about public access

While the advertising fight is limited to Sublette County, the skirmish is one of many across Wyoming that critics say are limiting public access to government business. This year courts ruled against public access in three cases outlined in a Wyoming Tribune Eagle story highlighting press woes during newspaper sunshine week in mid-March.

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Meantime some local governments continue the challenged practice of excluding the public from “subcommittee” meetings where public business is discussed. Among those is St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, where the Jackson Hole Daily recently reported “Hospital board appoints members to its closed committees.”

“We don’t necessarily have to make those public,” Medical Center board chairman Michael Tennican said of the subcommittee meetings. Wyoming press director Angell disagreed, saying case law has established that such subcommittees must heed the same open-meeting and public-record laws that apply to the parent board.

“This flies directly in the face of the intent of the Open Meetings Act,” he said. “By sealing off the process of how the decision is reached, the hospital is closing the doors on its constituents and keeping them from the thought that goes into how taxpayer resources are being used.”

On the statewide front the Wyoming Legislature this year refused to consider a bill to record legislative committee meetings held between lawmaking sessions. Lawmakers did amend the existing data-trespass law that’s been challenged as a violation of the first amendment right to free speech. Critics — Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, animal rights and a food-safety group — immediately challenged that amended Wyoming statute.

State administrators also have come under attack. Federal Environmental Protection Agency authorities criticized Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for not following public-involvement rules as it sought to amend clean-water standards . While the state disagreed with the EPA, it nevertheless re-opened public comment and is reviewing those as the federal government requested.

Sublette County may seem like a sleepy cow-town community recovering from a gas-field boom hangover. But its outspoken residents have variegated views that transcend stereotypes and create great newspaper headlines. Worries about access to government information transcend county boundaries, however, and are shared by media across the state. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The public, and the press must remain vigilant against their right to access documents and attend meetings, said Robb Hicks, two-time former president of the Wyoming Press Association. “I would say it’s always being challenged,” he said of public access to government work. “These cases seem to ebb and flow,” with favorable outcomes for sunshine advocates — until recently.

“I think now we’re swinging the other way,” the publisher of the Buffalo Bulletin said. With “some case law going the other direction, [governments are] emboldened to try to perform more of the public‘s business in the dark and exclude access to public documents.”

Hicks did give credit to the University of Wyoming trustees for opening up their search for president last year.

“Wyoming newspapers, more than anyone else, have served as a watchdog for public access to public documents and access to open meetings,” he said. “Without sunshine, without that daylight, bad things happen in government.” Not a sleepy one-horse town

Sublette newspaper reporters have had plenty to report on in what might seem to be an agricultural community sleeping off an energy-boom hangover. In Sublette County, headlines are easier to come by than methane emissions in a gas field.

Last year, for example, after defeating the county clerk’s husband in an election for sheriff, newly elected Stephen Haskell asked a judge to stop clerk Mary Lankford from what he said was her meddling with his department. The judge rejected that request.

Soon after he was elected, Haskell became known around the world as the Western sheriff who banned cowboy boots and hats in his department. Prosecutors charged him with improperly billing for new department uniforms. Now Gov. Matt Mead has acted to have Haskell removed. The Roundup and its sister publication the Sublette Examiner, also owned by Wyoming Newspapers, covered all of this.

Sublette County selected the Roundup as its official paper in July 2015, the lawsuit says, after the government solicited bids and received them from the Roundup and Examiner. But in October, the county moved its ads to the Trader, after receiving a later bid from that publication.

Sublette County “will save approximately $20,000 annually by placing legal notices in the Sublette Trader rather than the Pinedale Roundup or Sublette Examiner,” county officials said in their response to the suit. Regardless of savings, the Trader doesn’t meet the definition of a newspaper, the suit says. In addition, the Trader is not a newspaper of “general circulation” as established by case law, the suit says.

The Trader made a bogus attempt to establish a paid circulation, according to the suit and the Wyoming Press Association. “Sublette Trader, after discussing the possibility of being designated as the official newspaper with county officials, began ‘charging’ one cent for copies that it placed at various businesses and other locations around the county,” the suit says.

The Sublette Trader asks readers to put a penny in the can at this distribution rack at the Daniel Junction in Sublette County. As the designated legal newspaper of the county, the shopper now publishes legal ads for the county government. Wyoming laws require legal newspapers to have a paid circulation, but the penny charge is a gimmick to skirt advertising laws, critics say. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“Gimmick circulation does not count,” press director Angell said of the 1 cent charge. Circulation requirements were established to ensure that county residents and others receive — and can subscribe to by mail to get — public notices. Numbers are verifiable by newspapers’ paid-circulation and subscription information.

The suit calls the Trader a shopper, saying it “has and continues to contain primarily advertisements, and employs no reporters or photographers.” The April 7 issue of the Sublette Trader included two items titled “Press Release” in its 10 pages. An earlier issue also had a column about a county resident being appointed to a state board. The publication’s website describes the Trader as “a weekly advertising publication.”

The county responded that Wyoming laws do not statutorily define “newspaper” or “paper” and that there is no consensus as to what constitutes a “newspaper” for legal publications. Among other arguments, the county also said clerk Lankford did not raise questions about newspaper coverage as alleged. Lankford did not return a phone message seeking comment for this story and was unavailable despite several calls.

Sublette Trader owner Lwyn Dahl would not answer questions other than to say he and the Trader had been dismissed from the legal action. The county response said the Trader is distributed at more than 80 sites. The suit is scheduled for a bench trial on August 8 in front of District Judge Jeffrey Donnell.

(Disclosure: The author represented the Jackson Hole News on the Wyoming Press Association board of directors in the 1990s. WyoFile is an associate member of the Wyoming Press Association — Ed.) Did You Like This Story? donate now

The bottom line is Newspapers are becoming obsolete, they are going the way of travel agencies.

The state statute needs to be updated to modern times to allow some other avenues for advertising legal notices, such as online where most people are getting information these days.

In Sublette County most people claim to not read the Sublette Examiner or Pinedale Round-up, but people read the Sublette Trader. What’s more accessible to the public 2 papers with the exact same content that are 75 cents each (same as the New York Times) that are available in limited locations or a newspaper for 1 cent that’s located nearly everywhere in Sublette County. Why do people have to pay to read the legal notices anyway, shouldn’t it be free, it’s public information?

It is a clearly a system set up by the powerful newspaper lobby as others have mentioned to pay their way and limit competition. Local governments are tired of being put over a barrel, it is especially concerning in declining economic times when costs need to be cut.

I’m sure Sublette County is not the only local government in this situation, News Media Corporation which owns the Examiner and Round-up, own a total of 17 other papers in Wyoming, especially in small communities with limited options, go figure.

Pinedale, Wyoming

The truth is Wyoming Newspapers and most newspapers would fold without the cash cow of legal advertising. Why are governments subsidizing an antiquated medium? Our Cities, Towns, and Counties could find much more cost effective ways to get the information to it’s citizens and then be able to spend that previously wasted money on services to it’s citizens instead of propping up the states monopolistic Newspapers. How can we ever know if we have a “FREE” press when they are so completely dependent on these legal ads?

Evanston, Wyoming

We have a somewhat similar issue here in Weston County. The NewsLetter Journal based in Newcastle has a much larger circulation than the Weston County Gazette based in Upton but the County commissioners gave the WC Gazette the contract to publish their legal notices due to lower ad space charges. The fly in the ointment is the Journal has been the newspaper of choice for those illegals but the Journal paid the Gazette to publish those legals too. Now the publisher of the Gazette says she won’t reciprocate. The result is only about one tenth of the county’s citizens will see those legals upon first publication.

Newcastle, Wyoming