City’s move against paper seen as re­tal­i­a­tion

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Business -

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A grow­ing com­mu­nity near Kansas City has de­cided to stop pub­lish­ing its le­gal no­tices in its home­town news­pa­per, de­scrib­ing the move as cost cut­ting but do­ing it af­ter sev­eral of­fi­cials crit­i­cized the cov­er­age the city was re­ceiv­ing.

The City Coun­cil in Gard­ner, Kansas, changed its news­pa­per of record fol­low­ing a staff re­port that the city would likely lower its costs 75% by go­ing with an­other weekly pub­li­ca­tion. The Gard­ner News, which was the paper of record for at least three decades, stands to lose thousands of dol­lars a year.

The dis­pute comes as lo­cal news­pa­pers are fac­ing fi­nan­cial pres­sure as they strug­gle to deal with both read­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers mov­ing on­line. The in­dus­try has largely held onto the busi­ness of print­ing le­gal no­tices even though state law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing in Kansas, face pro­pos­als to al­low lo­cal gov­ern­ments to save money by pub­lish­ing them only on­line.

Some see some­thing more trou­bling in the Gard­ner City Coun­cil’s move, made just weeks af­ter the mayor and a coun­cil mem­ber ac­cused The Gard­ner News of pub­lish­ing in­ac­cu­rate ma­te­rial, ty­ing up city’s staff to an­swer it and ob­struct­ing city busi­ness. They also note that the print cir­cu­la­tion for the new paper of record, The Le­gal News, is in nearby com­mu­ni­ties, not Gard­ner, where it is cir­cu­lated only on­line.

“They want to put me out of busi­ness,” long­time Gard­ner News Pub­lisher Rhonda Hum­ble said. “They want to shut me up.”

The mayor and coun­cil mem­bers who sup­ported the change — the coun­cil split 3-2 on Mon­day over the de­ci­sion — said they could not ig­nore the po­ten­tial cost sav­ings: at least $48,000 over the next five years.

“The de­ci­sion was based on a cost dif­fer­en­tial and noth­ing more,” Mayor Steve Shute said in an email, adding that it was try­ing to pub­lish le­gal no­tices “in the most fis­cally re­spon­si­ble man­ner.”

City of­fi­cials say they’re not con­cerned that the le­gal no­tices will be less ac­ces­si­ble be­cause res­i­dents can find them on­line and that printed copies will be made avail­able at City Hall.

The dis­pute might end up be­ing set­tled in court; Hum­ble said she’s “ex­plor­ing lit­i­ga­tion.”

Even The Le­gal News’ pub­lisher, John Lewis, has mis­giv­ings about pick­ing up Gard­ner’s busi­ness.

“We con­tinue to be­lieve that the city should pub­lish in the in-town news­pa­per,” Lewis said in an email. “This is a dis­pute be­tween the city of Gard­ner and The Gard­ner News. I do wish they would learn to get along.”

Richard Karpel, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Pub­lic No­tice Re­source Cen­ter, said he hears of a dis­pute over lo­cal pub­lic no­tices some­where in the U.S. about once ev­ery six months. Karpel’s group, based in Car­son City, Ne­vada, ad­vo­cates keep­ing pub­lic no­tices printed in news­pa­pers.

“Usu­ally, they get up­set at the cov­er­age, the news­pa­per cov­er­age, and move it, or try to move it, to an­other paper,” he said. “In some cases, they’re chal­lenged in court, and gen­er­ally, you can’t make those kinds of de­ci­sions based on con­tent.”

Gard­ner’s city at­tor­ney told coun­cil mem­bers that they had to base their de­ci­sion on cost. Shute said in an email be­fore the de­ci­sion that, “We value the role of the lo­cal paper” and en­cour­age it to con­tinue cov­er­ing the com­mu­nity.

But the re­la­tion­ship has been con­tentious for months. Last month, Hum­ble filed a for­mal protest with the city over an an­nex­a­tion de­ci­sion, ar­gu­ing that the sum­mary le­gal no­tice it filed was not the com­plete pub­li­ca­tion re­quired by state law. The paper fol­lowed up with a sur­vey to coun­cil mem­bers, ask­ing them how they would pre­serve trans­parency.

City of­fi­cials have said they com­plied with state law. Coun­cil Mem­ber Rich Mel­ton, an­other sup­porter of the switch, said dur­ing a Novem­ber meet­ing that crit­i­cism of the city’s staff was “be­low the belt.” Shute said when a news or­ga­ni­za­tion makes “false claims and al­le­ga­tions” that ob­struct city busi­ness, “It needs to be ad­dressed in some way.”

For some res­i­dents, such com­ments were an ob­vi­ous red flag. One of them, Heath Free­man, called the move “vin­dic­tive.”

“A city should not re­tal­i­ate in such a way,” Free­man said. “We’re de­cid­ing this be­cause we don’t like the con­tent.”

AP Photo/Char­lie Riedel

The Gard­ner News, with a front-page story on it los­ing sta­tus of the city’s paper of record, is vis­i­ble with the Gard­ner City Hall in the dis­tance Fri­day in Gard­ner, Kan.

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