Most United States municipalities have laws requiring that all public notices must be published by a third-party independent newspaper — a concept that dates to the 1700s. This practice is based on the idea that the people of a democracy have the right to know what is going on with their government and the legal proceedings that occur within their community.
There is no question that the newspaper industry, especially on individual state levels, spends a good deal of resources to maintain that precedent, not only because the public notice linage creates necessary revenues that fund our newsrooms. These small, innocuous postings have helped provide, in many cases, another level of transparency within local governments that has uncovered and delivered a final check on graft and possible theft of tax dollars.
Over time some states and municipalities have found various reasons to try to stop the practice of placing public notices within newspapers of record. For example, in a March 2022 episode of "E&P Reports," this magazine reported on how the state of Florida passed sweeping legislation, reversing their stance on the practice in what was rumored to be the result of a vendetta between the state's governor and a hard hitting investigative reporter (“Florida's public notice reversal”).
More recently, the small town of Westmorland, Kansas' city council took advantage of a loophole in the state charter that allowed certain city governments to opt out of having to place these notices within a newspaper by declaring home rule in the exemption. The council's claim for the change was simply a way to save taxpayer money.
On August 11, 2022, Ned Seaton, the GM and editor-in-chief of the Manhattan (KS) Mercury and the Times of Pottawatomie County Kansas, the newspaper of record of Westmorland, stood in front of the council and pled a case that reminded the council members of the three key implications of the government’s choice to remove notices from newspapers: Budget, transparency, and liability. Within the very text of the recorded speech, Seaton stated to the group: “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 cover your meetings, and you'll be using a cost-effective medium and making a statement that you value government accountability — at least to the extent of four-tenths of one percent of your budget." His compelling argument worked; the council voted to reinstate the practice directly after.
In this 159th episode of "E&P Reports," we interview Ned Seaton, the GM and editor-in-chief of the Manhattan (KS) Mercury and the Times of Pottawatomie County Kansas, the newspaper of record of Westmorland, KS. The town decided to suspend the placement of public notices in the local newspaper and then reverse itself when reminded by Seaton of the value and overall benefit the practice itself has for the community as a whole. Also appearing is Emily Bradbury - Executive Director of the Kansas Press Association. She offers her perspective on how important it is that news publishers help in all ways possible to keep this practice in place.
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