The tale of a doleful pony that became an object of affection a couple of years ago on Key Peninsula provides an example of the tortuous path a proposed law can travel in the Legislature. It’s a path that almost led down a slippery slope, straight into an ambush of our state’s weekly newspapers.
Runaway Ray, an old, bedraggled Shetland, was found in April 2015 along Whiteman Road on the Peninsula. Resident Marykate Fowler, who already had horses and goats on her property, took Ray in, cared for him and posted a notice on Facebook.
An owner didn’t come forward, so Fowler contacted animal control, which came and took the horse — even though Fowler was willing and able to care for him. As The News Tribune reported at the time, state law required Pierce County to turn Ray over to a state brand inspector, who then tried to find the owner.
The inspector came up empty, so Ray was sent to auction, where he was purchased — at a price far beyond the pony’s extrinsic qualities — by the good people of his Peninsula fan club. Ray lived his few remaining months surrounded by animal and human friends.
State Rep. Michelle Caldier, whose district Ray was found in, was one of those who fell for him. “My heart went out to him,” she told the TNT in 2015.
Caldier introduced a bill last year that would have allowed people to temporarily care for unbranded horses, mules or donkeys that came into their possession. It also would’ve given those people first crack at buying the animal, if they could show the ability and financial wherewithal to care for it.
The bill didn’t become law, so Caldier spent time between sessions meeting with interested parties. The bill was retooled and reintroduced in the current session.
But this time it had a gratuitous addition:
“A brand inspector must publish the notice of sale of an animal in a daily newspaper in the county where the animal was found. If no daily newspaper exists, a brand inspector must publish the notice by electronic means in a manner most likely to reach the most potential interested parties.”
The second sentence was the stinker. Paid legal notices for impounded animals aren’t big items in a newspaper’s budget, but larger forces are at work here — forces that would like to bypass the traditional press in favor of the internet. In some ideological grottoes, any opportunity to constrict a newspaper’s finances is achingly tempting.
Efforts are now underway in the New Jersey and Wisconsin legislatures, with the support of Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker, to eliminate the statutory requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers. These notices are critical to some papers’ survival, especially weeklies, which are precisely the institutions that would have been harmed by the language in Calder’s bill.
Beyond that, newspapers provide a disinterested third party to air information that involves taxpayer money. And to air them “in a manner most likely to reach the most potential interested parties”? That’s a phrase begging for abuse.
The price of legal notices is a price of maintaining a free press.
Caldier told the TNT last week that she accepts responsibility for the clause being in her bill, though she’s not sure where it came from. She said a stakeholder probably introduced it as a way to reduce costs.
The provision about electronic legal notices was ultimately removed from the legislation. But the bill failed to came up for a vote on the House floor last week, so it’s done for the second straight session. Caldier promised to resume her Runaway Ray tribute effort next year.
So, all’s well that ends well? Maybe not.
The people who shoehorned that clause into the Runaway Ray bill are out there waiting for another chance to hobble newspapers.
Shame on them for trying to use a beloved pony as a Trojan Horse.