CASPER — Two Natrona County municipalities passed ordinances in recent months exempting themselves from publishing public notices in newspapers, council filings show.
The city of Mills passed its exemption in January, with an ordinance naming several sections of Wyoming State Statute Title 15 that require municipalities to put legal or public notices in local newspapers for a certain period of time.
In Bar Nunn, a nearly identical ordinance was passed by its town council during its June 15 council meeting.
While the ordinances and an attorney for the municipalities say the Wyoming Constitution allows them to make exemptions to state statute, a public records expert said that the move is unprecedented in Wyoming and it’s unclear whether the exemptions are legal.
The ordinances specifically name five statutes in Title 15 but also claim exemption from “various other provisions of Wyoming State Statute (requiring) municipal corporations to provide notice of actions, hearings and information by way of legal notices or publications in newspapers.”
The named statutes (WS § 15-7-303, 15-7-106 15-7-107, 15-1-110 and 15-6-202) require the publication of council meeting minutes, improvement plans, public or parkland vacation notices, bond sales and notice of bond sinking funds dipping below $500.
Both municipalities’ ordinances say giving notice in newspapers is “an inefficient means of providing notice at the present time, fails to give adequate notice, and is an expense imposed upon the town which is not calculated to achieve the desired effect.”
Under the new rules, the municipalities must now post materials at three public places in town.
Mills’ ordinance says it now publishes notices on its website, at its City Hall, the Mills Library and post office. Bar Nunn only names two physical locations — its Town Hall and Fire Department — despite language in the ordinance that specifies notices will be available in three places besides the town’s website.
On Friday, meeting minutes from the most recent regular and special council sessions, along with bills and claims, were posted in Mills at City Hall and in the post office lobby. The library was temporarily closed.
In Bar Nunn, meeting minutes and a recent proclamation were available to view at the Town Hall. The volunteer fire department was not publicly accessible.
The ordinance is not yet in full effect in Bar Nunn yet, since charter ordinances must be published in a local newspaper at least two weeks in a row. After its final publication, there’s a 60-day period before the ordinance becomes law. That gives residents time to learn about the change and the chance to organize a petition to send the issue to a referendum.
Minutes for Mills City Council meetings are available on the city’s website consistently though late March of this year, and meeting agendas through late April.
On Bar Nunn’s website, digital meeting agendas are up to date, while meeting minutes are a few weeks behind. Additionally, Bar Nunn’s meeting agendas do not include copies of proposed ordinances, bills and claims, or other supplemental materials given at meetings.
Municipalities can pass exemptions to state statutes that apply specifically to cities and towns under Article 13 of the Wyoming Constitution, cited in the ordinances.
Attorney Patrick Holscher, who works with both Mills and Bar Nunn, said municipalities cannot exempt themselves from blanket statutes related to things like crime or state taxes. But statutes applying to governance of cities and towns, he said, can be exempted.
Holscher said the ordinances are in line with the Wyoming “home rule” principle, first introduced as a constitutional amendment in the 1970s, which allows cities and towns to make structural changes to their governance by charter ordinance.
But these exemptions are very rare. Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne attorney who specializes in public records access, said he’s never seen any municipality pass an exemption to state statute.
“Where’s the end of that?” Moats said. “Does that mean they have the right to exempt themselves from any state statutes they want to?”
After becoming a first-class city upon passing 4,000 residents last year, Mills also passed several other ordinances in January, exempting itself from dividing the city up into wards.
Moats said he’d heard from several people unhappy with the exemptions, who have said they depend on newspapers to see public notices.
Papers are an independent and objective publisher, Moats said. They also have a wider reach, built-in time stamps and aren’t subject to technical difficulties like a website is. And most public places where citizens can view these notices, with the exception of a town or city hall, only have one copy of each notice available that can be taken at any time.
“I do fear a government taking over that public notice aspect and running it themselves,” Moats said. “It’s a little bit like the fox, you know, guarding the chicken coop.”
In recent years, the state legislature has heard multiple bills attempting to repeal the newspaper notice requirement for cities and towns, but all have been defeated.
Mills Mayor Seth Coleman and Bar Nunn Mayor Patrick Ford did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.