Public notices — from bankruptcies to board proceedings and project bids — must have a home in print under state law.
The notices may not be flashy, but they’ve become a flash point of debate in Anoka County, where the County Board on Tuesday will join officials across the state in awarding contracts for printing public notices.
The Anoka County Record, a free weekly paper with a circulation of about 750, has printed the county’s notices for the last two years. It’s published by John Kysylyczyn, a former mayor of Roseville.
But critics, including several county commissioners, question whether the Anoka County Record is a newspaper at all. Some have described it as political propaganda. Others, such as Commissioner Mike Gamache, consider it more like “a newsletter.”
Kysylyczyn said that objections to his paper bring politics into a bidding process that should remain free of such considerations.
“Politics should not be a part of this,” he said.
In some areas of the state, only one newspaper may bid to print a local government’s notices. But in others, like Anoka County, competition flares.
“It’s occasionally contentious,” said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Questions about the process, he said, often center on whether or not local governments must always choose the lowest bidder.
The short answer: not necessarily, Anfinson said. Some public officials prioritize other factors, such as circulation numbers.
In Kandiyohi County, for instance, breadth of readership trumps cost. For at least 20 years, public notices have appeared in the Willmar-based West Central Tribune, the area’s only daily newspaper, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl. While that paper’s bid has been about twice as much as others, it’s an expense the county considers worthwhile, Kleindl added.
“We want to get the information out to all areas of the county — not just one section of it,” Kleindl said.
But in places like Ramsey or Hennepin counties, commissioners have historically chosen the lowest bidder regardless of circulation, county officials said.
The debate in Anoka County, Anfinson said, is unusual because it has swirled around a newspaper’s qualifications rather than factors like cost.
“This isn’t really a newspaper,” Gamache said in a recent interview. “It’s a blog that’s part advertising.”
State law outlines what defines a “qualified newspaper,” with requirements ranging from the language it’s printed in — English — to how much content must be news of local interest.
The Anoka County Record, Kysylyczyn said, meets the standards as they’re spelled out. Some county officials agree.
“It has never been decided that the Record is not a legal newspaper,” Commissioner Scott Schulte said at a recent committee meeting.
The advent of the internet has brought a number of legislative pushes to revise the state’s requirement, with many arguing that legal notices should not have to be printed at all.
Several Anoka County commissioners support an online-only format.
“No one that wants to read public notices does so in print,” Schulte said, adding that he plans to vote on Tuesday for the lowest bidder. “Why would I spend four or five times the amount of money for something that no one is going to read?”
Legal notices, Schulte added, also appear on the county’s website.
But for some counties, spotty internet coupled with an aging population means that print is still a mainstay of communication, said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “It often comes down to a county’s demographics,” she said.
When Kysylyczyn started the Anoka County Record in 2011, he said, he aimed to provide public bodies a way to print what the law requires for less.
For 2017, the paper bid prices that were in some cases about a third of its competitors. It now serves as the official newspaper for notices in Ham Lake and Oak Grove as well as the county.
Kysylyczyn, who also runs a political consulting firm, said he does much of the work for the paper at City Council and County Board meetings, his laptop and video equipment in tow. He then drops off papers at libraries, city halls, the county courthouse and a convenience store in Nowthen. Previous issues are archived online.
Before the Record emerged in the bidding pool, the county’s public notices often appeared in the Anoka County UnionHerald. Representatives from the UnionHerald pleaded the paper’s case before county officials at a committee meeting last month.
“Value is what you really need,” said Tom Murray, a general manager of ECM Publishers, Inc., publisher of the UnionHerald. “This might be the time to make a change and choose a publication you can be proud of.”
Kysylyczyn said the sealed competitive bidding process makes the choice of the low bidder clear.
“This bidding process eliminates conflict of interest,” he said. “But it’s become political.”