Mills City Council adds state electronic system as future public notice option to newspaper ads

MILLS, Wyo. — On Tuesday, City of Mills councilmembers approved further changes to an amended ordinance — changes that add an option to advertise public notices using a centralized electronic system maintained or authorized by the State of Wyoming.

At their Oct. 10 regular meeting, Mills City councilmembers, on the second of three readings, passed the city’s newest version of a proposed ordinance addressing legal advertisements.

The newly added clause would give the City of Mills the option to use a central electronic publication system through the state if the state established such a system, City Attorney Pat Holscher said at the meeting.

The reason the council is amending the city’s legal advertising ordinance is to answer the question “What is the nature of a newspaper in 2023?” as part of a lawsuit over with Lee Enterprises, owner of the Casper Star-Tribune newspaper.

By Wyoming 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.

As parties to active litigation regarding legal advertisements in Natrona County, the City of Mills and the Town of Bar Nunn are attempting to answer the principal question of “What is a newspaper?” by modifying ordinances that address their concerns about where to most effectively publish or post legal notices for public view.

Lee Enterprises has sued Mills and Bar Nunn for intending to stop publishing in Casper’s print only newspaper. 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.

The lawsuit first emerged in summer 2021 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.”

Mills and Bar Nunn, both represented by City Attorney Pat Holscher, filed a counterclaim challenging whether it is constitutional for Wyoming law to require them to publish in newspapers and further challenged the presumption that “newspaper” in 2023 means a printed newspaper.

In November 2021, District Court Judge Dan Forgey issued an oral judgment from the bench in support of the Bar Nunn and Mills motions to dismiss the suit filed against them by the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Press Association. This stayed the litigation pending further action by both councils, which is now proceeding.

Holscher told Oil City News by email Oct. 11 that Bar Nunn’s ordinance version has not yet been changed to match the one the Mills City Council passed Oct. 10. That will not happen until its council meets next week.

“It would be my anticipation that this amendment will appear in their version as well, but of course that will depend on their town council,” Holscher wrote by email.

The hope is the municipality can resolve the lawsuit by identifying their public notice sources, City of Mills Mayor Leah Juarez told Oil City News in September.

Using ordinances reworded from those adopted in 2021, both councils are working toward approving revised ordinances. Bar Nunn passed its changed ordinance on first reading Sept. 19. Mills voted on its first amended version Sept. 26 and its second version Oct. 10. Ordinances become law when passed on three readings.

Holscher said the revisions gave both municipal councils the option of defining “newspaper” as electronic media.

“As the municipality made this decision, the Court stayed the action until the revised ordinances could be addressed, and perceptibly passed, by the municipal councils,” Holscher said by email. “This will also give Lee Enterprises and the State of Wyoming an opportunity to see if they are still objects to the revised ordinances.”

While the ordinances are nearly the same, each municipality proposes a different location to advertise or place legal notices when choosing to bypass the Casper Star-Tribune. In the proposed ordinance Mills lists its city website and designated public places as the “Mills town Hall, the Mills Library and the United States Post Office in the Town of Mills.”

Bar Nunn’s proposed ordinance lists the Town of Bar Nunn website and names its public places as Bar Nunn Town Hall and the Bar Nunn Fire Department.

Addressing length of time, both ordinances say all such advertisements and public notices will remain in place at those locations according to state statute.

“Every municipality has the right to dictate where they put their notices,” City of Mills Mayor Leah Juarez told Oil City News in September.

The proposed ordinances also argue that a single newspaper in Natrona County means municipalities are captives of the Casper Star-Tribune — if Lee Enterprises’ reading of the law is correct — which leaves the Casper Star-Tribune free to charge any amount it chooses for municipalities to run legal notices.

Wyoming law does address legal advertising rates, stating the amount charged cannot exceed a daily newspaper’s lowest rate for display advertising or a weekly newspaper’s “open local display” advertising rate. Furthermore, the newspaper must use the same print type size it uses in regular classified advertising columns.

Read the City of Mills Ordinance 804 passed on second reading Oct. 10 here: