Kansas Legal Notices Debate Begins Tuesday

By John Celock

A Kansas legislative subcommittee is scheduled to begin consideration of a bill that could overhaul the way local governments in the state post legal notices on Tuesday morning.

A subcommittee of the state House Local Government Committee will begin meeting Tuesday at 8 a.m. to start discussion relating to a bill proposed last week by Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina). The legislation would give cities, counties and school districts in the state the option to post legal notices online instead of in print newspapers. Newspapers in the state have vowed to fight any attempt to move the legal notices – a revenue stream for print publications – saying that it would hurt government
transparency in the state.

“I appreciate that with technology and websites we can get information like this out there,” House Local Government Committee Chairman Steve Huebert told The Celock Report.

Huebert said that the legislation – proposed by Claeys and formally introduced by the local government panel – is a starting point for discussions in the Legislature and with the Kansas Press Association on the issue. He said he hopes to be able to see a compromise struck between lawmakers and the newspaper trade association. The subcommittee is being chaired by Rep. Virgil Peck (R-Tyro).

The legislation is the latest attempt in efforts to incorporate online for legal notices. Discussions several years ago broke down after what both sides said was the other failing to wanting to reach a compromise on the issue.

Huebert indicated that he and other lawmakers wanted to reach a compromise but said that the press association was not interested. Doug Anstaett, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, remembered things differently, telling The Celock Report that KPA backed away when it became clear that the Legislature did not want to back down.

Heading into Tuesday’s first subcommittee meeting, Anstaett said that the KPA is interested in talking to the Legislature but will defend keeping legal notices in print publications. He said a change will cause problems for residents.

“I have not heard of any compromise from the other side. Their bill is totally unacceptable,” he said. “When you give communities the option, you’re going to have a hodgepodge. Some towns will stay with a paper. You’ll have a hodgepodge. When you give people an option they’ll take advantage of it.”

In the week since Claeys first proposed the bill, KPA members have been defending the current system, saying that it increases transparency. They have said that local governments should not control information by posting it on their websites, and also said that more people will read it in a newspaper versus online. They also said that online only could allow for tampering with the notices and not producing a written record.

KPA members have also noted that the change would cost newspapers revenue.

Under the current system, local governments create the notices and then pay for printing. The notices include ordinances, meeting, foreclosures, tax delinquency lists and land use proposals. Local and state officials have said the change to include an online option is needed in order to save money for local governments.

Miami County Treasurer Gayla Shields (R) has said the change would produce “huge savings” for local governments, while Saline County Treasurer Jim Dubois (R) said it would save his county over $80,000 a year. Former Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R), who has become a vocal advocate for the bill, said it would be helpful for smaller cities like his own.

Support for the legislation has been bipartisan with Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew (D), who heads the state’s county clerks’ association, saying last week that he is in support. Shew also mentioned a compromise that would have a legal notice running once in print and then online. The KPA dismissed the idea last week, noting it would not allow for multiple printings.

Anstaett said Monday that the current system allows for more people to see the notices instead of having them online.

“We just want to make a number of points. That while technology is changing, we’re not close to being a position as a society or government to use the Internet for this kind of information,” he said. “One of our points is who was the last person who said they’d go to the Internet for public notice. One reason that notices in newspapers works is people happen upon it in newspapers.”

Anstaett gave an example of his father-in-law finding information about potential zoning changes to property adjacent to farmland he owned by noticing it in a legal notice in a newspaper.

“We would not have gone to the internet looking for something that might not show up,” he said. “Notice works because it happens upon in the newspaper. It is something they can read now or read later.”

Anstaett said that one area the KPA will broach to the subcommittee is a website run by the association, KansasPublicNotices.com, where newspapers have had the option of uploading digital copies of the legal notices. He said he could see a change being allowed where the current system stays and newspapers also have to place them online.

Press associations nationally have been vocal defenders of the print legal notices as state legislatures have considered changes. Utah lawmakers changed back to a hybrid system of print and online several years ago after trying a move to online.

Huebert said that he and other lawmakers are interested in seeing a compromise worked out. He said that the top issue though is tax dollars.

“The Legislature is serious about brokering a good compromise that saves taxpayer dollars,” he said. “Taxpayer dollars are not a subsidy to keep small newspapers alive.”

Anstaett said the issue is transparency.

“There is no room for compromise if the government is going to be in charge of their own information,” he said. “That is something we cannot accept.”