On Thursday August 11, the City of Westmoreland, Kansas, decided to reverse their previous decision to remove public notices out of their local paper, The Times of Pottawatomie County, and onto the city’s government website. In most places in the United States, law requires that all public notices — important information given to the public regarding certain types of legal proceedings — are published by a third party independent journalistic record. This idea tracks back to the earliest days of American government, and codifies the principle that in a democracy, the public has a right and need to know about substantial actions that the government is taking or contemplating — such as budget changes, rezoning of property, enactment of new ordinances, etc. Public notices educate the electorate about what’s going on in their local communities so that citizens can cast informed votes.
A loophole in Kansas state law, however, allows certain city governments to opt out of this long-standing rule. This loophole permits the publication of charter ordinances, such that certain communities can declare home-rule in exemption from the state law that requires the publication of notices in the local newspaper. In the last year, a handful of Kansas communities have decided to take advantage of this loophole as a way to save money.
On August 11, Ned Seaton — editor-in-chief of the Manhattan Mercury, a daily newspaper in Manhattan, Kansas — testified in front of Westmoreland’s city council to ask them to reconsider their decision. He addressed three key implications of the government’s choice to remove notices from newspapers: budget, transparency and liability. Seaton reminded the council that the cost of publishing these legals, especially when stacked against the cost of the event that required the notice in the first place, is a mere rounding error — the same cost per year as a couple of stop signs. He also explained that independent newspapers relieve government of the responsibility to be their own counterbalancing, regulatory check; by keeping newspapers as the required distributors of public notice, government officials are not liable for the mistakes they might make running the process themselves.
“I am asking you to reverse your vote last month, and instead continue to stand for transparency. I am asking you to designate – as your predecessors have designated for decades – an independent, subscription-supported printed newspaper as the verifiable method of notifying the public of what you’re doing. By doing so, you’ll be not only supporting a regional family-owned business, and its employees who actually cover your meetings, and you’ll not only be using a cost-effective medium, you’ll also be making a statement that you value government accountability, at least to the extent of four-tenths of one percent of your budget.”
– Ned Seaton, Publisher of The Manhattan Mercury, Manhattan, KS
Seaton argued that not only should government not get into the business of disseminating their own information; they shouldn’t want to. Without the systems in place to handle the public notice process well, government entities might miss notification deadlines, leave out critical information, or make changes electronically to notices on their websites without public knowledge. By handling the public notice process, local journalism not only maintains a transparent information stream for citizens, but also protects government officials from liability.
After Seaton’s statement, Westmoreland City Council agreed that the Times of Pottawatomie County is best equipped to handle the public notice process, and — in a rare instance — renounced their previous decision. Ironically, the council had to call the Times of Pottawatomie County to cancel the public notice that was to be published in the paper announcing the original ordinance.
The Times of Pottawatomie County is among a group of papers owned by Seaton Publishing Group, which is the birthplace of Column, a public benefit company dedicated to making public information systems more valuable, starting with public notice. Earlier this year, the Times adopted the Column software to provide a streamlined public notice service for city government. This self-serve platform is continuously updated, and has advanced features to reduce human error and uphold a high level of accuracy and regulatory compliance. With Column, government officials can digitally place notices in The Times and trust that their notices will be posted on the newspaper’s website, which is hosted by Column and has far broader reach than the government’s website. By remaining the required distributors of public notice, the Times of Pottawatomie County ensures that this important public information is as accessible as possible to the public.