Local Officials: Kansas Bill Would Deliver ‘Huge Savings’

By John Celock

Proposed legislation to allow local governments to post legal notices online would deliver “huge savings” according to local leaders, while newspaper leaders have indicated they’ll fight to preserve their revenue stream.

Legislation proposed earlier this week by Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) would allow for cities, counties and school districts in the state to post legal notices online instead of local newspapers. Local leaders from both parties indicate the cost savings are needed in an era of declining revenue for local governments. Newspapers industry leaders in the state are fighting back, saying that the change would reduce transparency while also depriving newspapers of revenue.

“For one it would indicate a huge savings to local government,” Miami County Treasurer Gayla Shields (R) told The Celock Report. “If this were to pass it would be an immediate savings to local government. My understanding is there is a lot of money that goes hand in hand with publishing requirements. From those conversations there would be an immediate savings realized. Counties and all forms of local government have had to tighten their belts over the last couple of years.”

Kansas local governments have to publish a variety of information in a local print publication. These include ordinances, meeting notices, tax delinquency lists and land use proposals. Saline County Treasurer Jim Dubois (R) said that 600 state laws cover the mandated publication requirements for governmental entities in the state.

Dubois said that in 2014, Saline County spent $84,712 on legal notices. He said the county has spent $894,094.47 on legal notices since 2000.

Dubois said that by publishing online, local governments would be able to move that money to other areas of the budget in order to save taxpayer funds. He noted that in his county, there is a need to spend more money on jail issues and that the publication mandates do not allow for that money to be transferred to jail issues.

“As an elected official we owe a due diligence on how the money is best spent,” he said. “What is the best way to cut some of the costs and be effective in reaching the public and our constituents and meet the mandates before us?”

Claeys indicated that he consulted with Dubois and others in Saline County before introducing the legislation. The bill is currently pending before the House Local Government Committee, where a subcommittee has been formed to discuss the legislation.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew (D), the president of the Kansas County Clerks and Elections Officials Association, said that shifting legal notice requirements are a top concern for his organization. He said that as more residents utilize online resources in their daily life, it became clear to him and other clerks that posting the legal notices online would be a benefit.

He noted the costs to print the notices are a driving factor behind the county clerks’ desire to move the information online. Shew said that with declining revenue from the state government to local governments, local leaders are looking for a way to save money.

“We’ve got to figure out ways to control costs. That’s what the Legislature is saying, that government has to control costs,” Shew told The Celock Report. “At some points we have to reduce costs in a major way. In some publications to run them three times is tens of thousands of dollars. In many of the counties in western Kansas, even if it’s a $1,000, that’s a significant amount. There has to be give and take.”

Shew said that one proposal that the clerks association is advancing is for the items that are required to be published three times, including tax delinquency lists, to instead be published once and then placed online. He indicated this would save money and address a concern raised by the Kansas Press Association that notices placed online could be tampered with and would not have a paper trail.

Doug Anstaett, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told The Celock Report that the association is willing to talk to anyone who wants to discuss the issue. But he raised issue with Shew’s proposal.

“However, if they’re referring to the three times we run the delinquent property tax list, they are leaving out the very important fact that they tack on $15 to every tract, which often pays for all of the publication or a good portion of it,” Anstaett said.

Dubois raised issue with the $15 paying for the costs of publishing the tax delinquency lists. He said that in Saline County he had to publish 1065 parcels of land on the last tax delinquency list. He said since the list contains people who have not paid taxes and would not necessarily end up paying the $15 printing surcharge.

“Look at the cost of publication and they are delinquent and there is no money coming in,” Dubois said. “You’d be alarmed on what it’s costing us.”

Dan Thalmann, the publisher of the Washington County News and president of the Kansas Press Association, took to Twitter Thursday to lay out a series of arguments against Claeys’ bill. Thalmann said that he is worried about transparency issues of local governments self-publishing the information and noted that he sees the bill as being a push to end transparency in the state. He also noted the impact the bill would have on newspapers.

Thalmann found himself in a debate with former Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R), who has emerged as an advocate for the bill. Joy has said it would deliver a cost savings to smaller rural communities like his, noting the rise of online publications in the news industry. Kansas law, similar to most states, requires that legal notices be published in a local print newspaper and not only in an online publication.

“I’m more concerned about the principle of giving government control of their own information,” Thalmann wrote on Twitter about his opposition to the bill.

Legal notices are written by the government and then printed in the newspaper with no editing by the publication. Thalmann tweeted that while government writes the information, by printing it the notice “once in hardcopy, can’t be changed.”

Thalmann said that in the City of Washington, the city placed nine legal notices with his paper in 2014 for a cost of $392 and Unified School District 108 placed three for a cost of $340. He was taking issue with Joy’s claim that legal notices cost Smith Center between $5,000 and $10,000 annually during his five year tenure. Thalmann said that his research showed that Smith Center spent $1,200 in legal notices in 2014.

Smith Center City Clerk Terri Jones told The Celock Report that she does not see the readership of legal notices being that great and that the change would not have an impact.

“I think the people who would read it in the paper would find it online,” Jones said. “Some of those things people don’t read in the paper. It costs the taxpayers money for no reason.”

Press Associations nationally have long opposed any move to change the printing of legal notices for similar reasons, saying that if it placed online government could make changes to the documents, or that they would be vulnerable to hacking. Press Associations have also said that less people would view the notices online versus in print.

Thalmann said on Twitter that Shew’s proposal would have less people seeing the notices.

“The idea behind multiple publication is more chances to run into it while perusing the paper,” Thelmann tweeted.

Claeys indicated that he’d be open to considering Shew’s proposal in the final version of his bill.

“I’m open to an outcome that respects taxpayer dollars, recognizes where taxpayers receive information and gives citizens the opportunity to view notices over a period of time rather than on a single day,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “The subcommittee will review these issues and find a path forward that focuses on taxpayers and access to information.”

Thalmann acknowledged the impact a change would have on his publication financially.

“This is a bill that will have major impact on our industry,” he tweeted. “I’d have to cut a position: 9% of my sales income.”

Thalmann, the vice chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, noted on Twitter that “I feel like I was betrayed by my own party” with the bill being pushed by a Republican lawmaker.

“In the past, Republicans preferred the public to keep an eye on government,” Thalmann tweeted. “Didn’t realize that changed.”

Joy argued on Twitter that Republicans were in favor of transparency and that less people were reading newspapers.

“we haven’t,” Joy tweeted. “People read online publications.Your decr. in subscribers over the years should tell that”

Thalmann responding by questioning whether people in rural communities would be reading online publication of legal advertisements. Joy had earlier argued that people are reading online more than print.

“You still in SCenter? Go ask the main demographic there where they get news – not ready for full online yet,” Thalmann tweeted.

Shew said that he believes people will want to read the information online, citing his office’s use of Facebook, Twitter and the Douglas County website to share information. He noted that from analyzing the traffic numbers, he sees “thousands of people” going on to the county clerk’s website for information during election season.

“The people are used to getting online at midnight and looking up the information they need from their government,” he said.

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