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Kansas Press Association considers AG’s opinion a threat to government transparency

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Kansas Press Association considers AG’s opinion a threat to government transparency

Sep 30, 2023 | 11:54 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Kansas Press Association considers AG’s opinion a threat to government transparency
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Attorney General Kris Kobach issued a nonbinding legal opinion that said mid-sized cities could sidestep a state law requiring official public notices to be printed in a newspaper of record. The official notices have been an important source of income for newspapers in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Attorney General Kris Kobach issued a legal opinion declaring cities in Kansas with populations ranging from 2,000 to 15,000 had the right to exempt themselves from state law requiring official city business notices to be printed by a designated newspaper.

Kobach’s nonbinding analysis said cities could adopt ordinances that allowed them to inform the public by posting information on budget hearings, zoning proposals and other issues to a city-owned website rather than buy newspaper advertisements.

The opinion was released in response to a Kansas House member’s specific request for clarification about whether cities in the second class — 2,000 to 15,000 people — had an alternative to designating a newspaper of record. In the opinion, Kobach said local government officials could sidestep the publication requirement because applicable state law treated the three classes of cities differently based on population.

“Home-rule provisions of the Kansas Constitution … allows cities to exempt themselves from nonuniform acts of the Legislature,” Kobach’s opinion said. “We conclude that a second-class city may exempt itself by charter ordinance. And, once having done so may then choose to publish official city business on its own webpage.”

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the attorney general’s interpretation of nonuniformity in state law mirrored the perspective of a lawyer representing KPA.

On Friday, Bradbury said elected city governments would risk undermining transparency important to their constituents by adopting ordinances ending the practice of compensating newspapers for dissemination of notices to the public.

“There’s a huge transparency issue here,” she told Kansas publishers. “No matter what (population) class you are in, you need to watch this. It’s spreading. Don’t sleep on this.”

Over the past 20 years, attempts in the Legislature to abolish city-notice standards have been unsuccessful due to concern revenue losses by newspapers could leave them vulnerable to closure. State law treats counties and school districts uniformly in terms of official notices, which means those government entities cannot opt out of disclosure requirements.

Bradbury said the legal opinion sought by Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, was among signs the 2024 Legislature could be asked to repeal statutes requiring publication of notices in a newspaper. Kansas legislators could be urged to amend notice-by-publication law to clearly say the objective of sharing city government information with the public could be met by government websites or online news businesses.

Chris Strunk, publisher of the weekly Ark Valley News and papers serving Park City, Bel Aire and Kechi, said he was organizing a protest petition to call a special election so voters could decide whether Bel Aire stopped or continued publishing city notices in the Ark Valley News. The newspaper company has for 17 years published Bel Aire’s notices for readers in Sedgwick County, but the city council adopted in August a charter ordinance under a plan that would have City Hall take responsibility for public notices.

“It was a surprise to us,” Strunk said. “They didn’t discuss it with us.”

Strunk said his petition calling for a special election was rejected twice by the Sedgwick County counselor, but the third version was approved. Strunk said he was in the process of gathering signatures from registered voters in support of a public vote in Bel Aire. He needs the equivalent to 10% of people who participated in the last election of city officials to advance the petition process.

Strunk urged other publishers who participated in KPA to monitor how city governments were responding to Kobach’s legal opinion.

“Don’t ignore this,” Strunk said. “Talk to your mayor, talk to your city administrator because they’re talking about it.”

Bel Aire Mayor Jim Benage, who posted to Facebook about the controversy, said the change to Bel Aire’s distribution of official information would save the city an estimated $10,000 annually.

“Times change,” Benage said. “We think using our own city website to publish legal notices is a better way to share information with area residents. We feel it encourages more interaction with residents and spurs web users to seek even more detailed information through other links on our website.”

He said the city council understood a decline in advertising at the Ark Valley News had the potential to weaken its sister publication, the Bel Aire Breeze.

“These newspapers may be servants of a free press, but they are also a free enterprise,” the mayor said.