Lawmakers, newspapers, governments eye changes to legal notices

Jul 5, 2012 By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

A Wyoming legislative committee in Riverton has instructed a state newspaper group, local governments and others to discuss possible reductions for required public notices in printed publications.

Meeting on June 29, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee unanimously supported discussion among the Wyoming Press Association, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and others.

A main issue identified by the governmental groups is the cost of printing the legal notices in newspapers that reached $1.6 million for Wyoming counties alone in the last two years.

Fremont County, for instance, has $40,000 budgeted for its statutory advertising, not including $16,000 for election-related notices and $6,000 for property tax sales listings.

Commission association executive director Cindy Delancey provided the legislative group with the two-year figure, noting the average cost to each county is $35,000 annually.

"There's got to be some options here and abilities to compromise," she said about changes that could result from a review of the numerous requirements in Wyoming statutes for legal notices.

Tom Hirsig, commissioner of the Wyoming Department of Insurance, told the committee that annual public notices required under his agency's purview cost companies operating in the state $900,000 annually.

"We all know that is going to be passed on to the consumers down the road," Hirsig said.

The insurance public notices do not generate any inquiries from residents in the state, he said.

"We've never had any consumers call us with questions" about the financial information published in the notices, Hirsig said.

Because of the financial concerns involved, some legislators wanted to see some possible changes, such as reducing the insurance public notices, happen in the next legislative session.

"I think it's too big an issue to kick it down the road a year. There's money involved," state Rep. Jim Roscoe, D-Wilson, said.

State Rep. Pete Illoway, R-Cheyenne, co-chairman of the committee, called the topic a "great big ox" that will require at least another year of discussion at meetings.

"I don't know that we have the time to start researching a half a dozen laws," Illoway said about bringing the issue to the next legislative session.

Mark Harris, general counsel and legislative director for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said concerns exist about what is necessary for public notices, as well as when and where they should run.

"We believe this is a timely topic in our state because of advances in technology," Harris said, referring to the use of online platforms to advertise the public notices.

Collaborations involving the press group with government representatives led to changes in public meeting and open records laws in Wyoming, Harris said.

"We think that was a successful endeavor," he said, noting the partnership could work well with requirements for public notices.

Using technology and the Internet, "We still have to balance issues of efficiency and cost with public information," he said.

He referenced a guide provided by the Wyoming Press Association concerning statutes for public notices that has not changed since the late 1980s.

Wyoming Association of Municipalities executive director George Parks suggested changes so that "we can have a system that is as effective as today if not more so" with less cost to governments.

He wanted to "make it absolutely clear ... we do not advocate moving to online publication only," committee members heard. "We are not and have not advocated we do that in one fell swoop."

Instead, "the goal I think should be how do we reach more people more efficiently" with public notices, he said.

Parks agreed with an ongoing collaboration among press and government groups to address possible changes.

"I think that is definitely a possibility, and we should pursue that," he said. "There is no guarantees obviously that everyone will agree on everything."

Newcastle News Letter Journal publisher Bob Bonnar, vice president of the Wyoming Press Association, pointed out an observation to the committee: "I don't hear anybody suggesting that anything is broken, that anything needs to be fixed."

Newspapers provide a permanent record of publication for the notices, Bonnar said.

"It's a system that works quite well, and it's a job that newspapers are proud to do," he said.

The press association has created as a site for compiling the advertisements, he said about evolving with technology.

Illoway questioned Bonnar about the need to "modernize" the laws pertaining to public notices.

"Some of these statutes haven't been looked at for 20 or 30 years," he said.

"Yeah, I believe that would be appropriate," Bonnar replied. "We're the press. We're always willing to listen."

Press association executive director Jim Angell said his group has worked with the municipalities group "to reduce the cost of publication for several individuals."

He used the example of not requiring small towns with no newspaper to publish their meeting minutes.

"If all small towns had to be held to that standard, you would've seen a lot more pain," Angell said. "We are more than willing to examine" the laws.

A representative of a web-based information site touted 100,000 unique readers and proclaimed the "newspaper is going away."

Casper Journal publisher Dale Bohren told the committee he checked the website's traffic on and saw the number actually to be 7,800 a month.

"In all of these discussions, numbers are a lot like potatoes: You can cook them 100 ways," Bohren said.

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