Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
Gardner city council members voted in a split vote three to two to remove public and legal notices from The Gardner News to The Legal Record in last night’s council meeting.
Kansas Statute requires the City of Gardner to publish several different types of legal notices in its official city newspaper, including ordinance summaries, public notices and public hearing announcements. The Legal Record, published in Olathe, is now the official city paper.
Steve Shute, mayor, removed himself from the vote stating he didn’t want to create a tie vote. Randy Gregorcyk and Tory Roberts voted not to change to The Legal Record, but to keep The Gardner News as the newspaper of record. Mark Baldwin, Todd Winters and Rich Melton voted in the majority.
Local residents addressed their concerns of not having The Gardner News as the local news source to council members. Heath Freeman, Gardner resident, said The Gardner News is a partner to the city, schools and civic organizations.
“They tell our story, and I find incredible value in that,” he said. “This will lessen the reputation of the city.”
Freeman then picked up a copy of The Legal Record for council members to see, as he called it the “White Whale.” He displayed the paper to show its content and print size, which is smaller than The Gardner News.
Freeman then shared Shute’s social media postings he made to the social media sharing site Facebook, which were negative towards The Gardner News.
“They haven’t failed in providing publication and legal records, which is what they are paid to do,” he said. “Maybe if the government body wasn’t so thin-skinned.”
The Legal Record doesn’t want to be the newspaper of record for Gardner, Freeman said.
“It’s never been about the money,” he said. “Not one single penny to The Legal Record stays in Gardner.”
The Legal Record is $252 for a yearly print subscription and $1,348 for an online yearly subscription with one online copy at $28 per issue. Cost for an annual subscription to The Gardner News is $51.25, and online is free.
Freeman and other members of the public shared concern that The Legal Record isn’t easily available in the City of Gardner and not easy for people, such as the elderly, to obtain.
Danedri Herbert, Gardner resident and former Gardner News reporter, said she has a better understanding of both sides as she has worked on both sides of politics and the media.
“This is a PR nightmare,” she said. “I am going to warn you that you are going to get sued.”
Herbert said the city will lose to litigation, and they will have to find a new attorney and contract which will be expensive.
“Legal notices increase with growth, which goes along with growth,” she said. “Growth pays for itself.”
Herbert again said she thinks they are going to get sued if the council votes to move to The Legal Record.
“It will blow up if you do this,” she said. “You’re not going to run the oldest business in town out of business. You have angered people who buy ink by the barrel.”
It is not the fault of the newspaper, Herbert said, but the people who budgeted. Amy Nasta, city senior management analyst, shared cost comparisons of ordinance summaries and legal public notices between The Legal Record and Gardner News. Price for Ordinance Summary publication with The Gardner News is $43.13 and The Legal Record $7.54. Price for Public Notice publication with The Gardner News is $138 and The Legal Record $36.72. The cost savings according to the report is 82.52 percent for ordinance summaries and 73.39 percent for public notices.
Public notice cost represents under one percent of the city’s total budget. Nasta said the spending comes from the City Clerk Fund.
Other members of the public shared concerns of The Gardner News being stripped of their status, First Amendment violations, setting a dangerous precedent and access to The Legal Record.
Tory Roberts, council member, said she had received an overwhelming amount of messages to keep The Gardner News.
“You all got similar messages,” she said. “I can’t believe I am the only one standing as the voice of the people.”
Mark Baldwin, council member, said he had received several emails from many constituents for and against the move and that it was more political than a business item and misleading the public.
“But now that it is here,” he said. “I cannot overlook the difference in cost.”
Baldwin said public notices only make up five to ten percent of the newspaper income.
“We need a distinction of what we are voting for,” he said. “The average person doesn’t read legal notices, and one to two and a half percent of citizens get legal notices in print.”
Newspapers were the media of the day, Baldwin said, but now they have moved online, and it is not easy to post notices on the city website.
“In 2019, state statute requires print paper,” he said. “We should do so with the most cost-effective.”
Ryan Denk, city attorney, said it was important as they discuss to steer clear of the content of The Gardner News, and to not focus on past dissatisfaction of content of political content.
Randy Gregorcyk, council member, said on the political side there was a strong trend of bias. He then read the definition of bias to the council members.
“Go back to through city meetings from 2017,” he said. “Review costs, and I also agree that budgets are out of whack and not in line with projected growth.”
Gregorcyk said to look at the bias back to 2017 and on social media by council members. There is also a letter from John Lewis, owner of The Legal Record, that he is not interested in being the city paper, and he still is not interested, Gregorcyk said.
“Gardner News is a trusted resource, John Lewis said, and we should continue with the home town paper,” Gregorcyk said.
He continually said the bias is so thick and he asked Shute and Rich Melton, council member, to recuse themselves from the vote. Shute and Melton interrupted Gregorcyk more than once. Gregorcyk said he thinks the city can align their budgets and every dollar counts.
“We should not penalize in a vindictive way a local, homegrown business and constituent,” he said.
Ryan Denk, city attorney, discussed further on the Mayor and Melton needing to recuse themselves based on bias.
“We don’t have a code of ethics in Gardner like other municipalities,” he said. “There has to be a unique interest or propriety to recuse, and there is no requirement to recuse. Conflict of interest is up to each member to assess.”
Gregorcyk said he still believed strongly there is bias.
“I understand it is a free market,” he said, “And yes, John Lewis took the most recent transaction, but he doesn’t want to talk to any of us or do business with us. What type of respect do we have?”
Gardner city staff had sent a public notice to The Legal Record last week, in advance of the vote. Melton said in August 2017 it was brought up as an idea if The Gardner News could match The Legal Record.
“Here we are in 2019, almost 2020, and they have never tried to match or work with us,” Melton said. “We are not here to make friends. What business would you spend 80 percent more with your money? You treat this like it is your own money, which is what we do.”
Todd Winters, council president, asked if notices on the city website can be a separate page. City Staff said yes and that they could keep it current and provide printed copies if the City Clerk’s Office is contacted.
“If we put on our website I do not see how that is limiting access to citizens,” he said. “A lot of Kansas uses The Legal Record, except Olathe.”
Winters said he sat down and looked at everything. He wanted to keep The Gardner News, he said, but it was hard to overlook the savings.
“I think we have been transparent and accessible,” he said.
Melton asked if copies could be taken to Groundhouse Coffee to be accessible. Baldwin said he didn’t agree with spending more on print. Shute said there isn’t an exclusive paper of record for the city.
Gregoryck asked Denk if The Legal Record had significant circulation to meet the Kansas Statute requirement. Denk said neither publication The Legal Record or The Gardner News meets the Kansas Statute requirement, but he said he hadn’t done the research.
Shute said should they be concerned about litigation depending on the outcome of the vote.
“The bigger area of concern is retaliation and the First Amendment claim,” Denk said.