RAWLINS – In response to a Rawlins Times article published on June 19, which reported the Carbon County Commission adjourned into executive session over an illegitimate reason, the Commission approved on Tuesday sending out a press release attempting to discredit the original report.
The press release states that the report – titled, “Heated exchange leads to illegal executive session?” – was “false,” was “taken out of context” and was based on “reckless assumptions.”
During a regularly scheduled Commission meeting on June 18, a heated argument between Commissioner Byron Barkhurst and Road and Bridge Superintendent Bill Nation over a county road infrastructure issue led to a consensus that the issue be further addressed behind closed doors, rather than it being “aired in public.”
“I think that when we get into the point of arguing, I think we need to do that in (executive session),” Chairperson John Johnson was quoted in the article.
Although it was purported that the Commission did not vote to later adjourn into executive session – a misstatement in which the Times later published a correction on – the heated exchange between Barkhurst and Nation didn’t qualify as a legitimate executive session issue under Wyoming Public Meetings Act guidelines.
Bruce Moats, a Wyoming Press Association attorney, backed the claim.
“There’s no arguing exception,” Moats was quoted in the article. “If there was, everything of substance our government does would be closed to the public.”
The county’s release argues that they were in fact in the right.
“During an open meeting, the discussion between a department head and a county commissioner became heated,” the release states. “Recognizing the confidential nature of the issues being raised, the Chairman suggested handling the matter during the already scheduled executive session.”
Two days following publication of the original Rawlins Times article, Ashley Mayfield Davis, Carbon County Attorney, called the Times office, demanding on behalf of the Commission that the Times run a retraction, a correction and an apology on the front page of the next published edition of the Times.
According to standard Times protocol, all general assignment news corrections and clarifications are typically issued on page A3 of any given edition.
Davis argued again that the Commission made it publicly apparent that the executive session was held to discuss personnel matters, which is covered by the Wyoming Public Meetings Act.
This action, said Davis, qualifies as a legitimate topic for executive session.
“When somebody tells an employee, this is about your performance and whether you have done your job, that is a different story,” Davis said. “The things that were discussed were confidential by law and not everybody’s business.”
If the local publication did not cooperate, Davis told the Times, the county would opt to not only send out a subsequent press release but possibly vote to switch the official county newspaper to a different publication, thereby forgoing a substantial advertising account.
“The Rawlins Times gets a lot of money from Carbon County for purposes of publication… I believe it’s about $30,000 a year,” Davis said. “So, we want an apology on the front page correcting these issues, and we want responsible journalism.”
Davis, asked if her reminding the Times of county advertising dollars was being instrumented as a threat, denied the accusation. Yet, she still emphasized the Commission’s power to possibly switch publications.
“I don’t have any control over (what publication) they select, and I’m certainly not saying that if you don’t do a retraction, they’re going to pull that funding and pull that designation,” Davis said. “But I’m also not saying that if you print a retraction, they’re going to keep it with you.”
Davis added, “We can certainly go through the Saratoga Sun.”
It was also on that June 18 meeting the Commission approved the Times’ designation of official county newspaper.