Even if you live in Anoka County, chances are slim you’ve heard of or paid much attention to The Great Legal Notices Squabble of 2013-2015.
You may even be saying, “Remind me. What are legal notices?”
Without getting into a PowerPoint presentation on the subject, let’s abbreviate the lesson to this: Counties, cities and municipalities are required by law to publish notice of foreclosures, bidding, hearings, court actions and so on, in what local officials designate as an official publication of record.
Traditionally, this has meant that various government organizations have paid taxpayer money to a local newspaper where, the theory goes, citizens would be able to easily see and read about important matters, never mind that the notices are generally as dense and legalistic as an insurance policy.
The part where the government pays for this service is where local newspapers and newspaper associations remain interested, since revenue streams don’t get much easier than receiving finished copy and a check from city hall or the county board. Get the notice. Print the notice. Cash the check.
But since 2013, a man named John Kysylyczyn has emerged as an insurgent amid this time-honored process.
Again, to make a long story much shorter, a few years ago Kysylyczyn sued Anoka County after he was not awarded the county’s legal notice business. But then, late last year, he was awarded the county’s legal notice business — on the grounds that his upstart free publication, the Anoka County Record (which is barely more than a newsletter, and a rabble-rousing one at that), both meets the current legal definition of a local publication — and is a whole lot cheaper than the previous keeper-of-important-public-information, the Anoka County Union Herald, which is part of the suburban ABC papers group, which it itself part of ECM Publishers, owners of 49 different publications in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Despite the fact that the Record is free, Kysylyczyn, who gained notoriety years back as the youngest and perhaps the most bumptious mayor in the history of Roseville, circulates a little more than 400 copies of his paper to Anoka County’s roughly 340,000 inquiring citizens. Not that the Union is exactly a pervasive presence. It has a declared circulation of 4,200.
Basically, the minimum standards for defining a publication are so low, and the appeal in Anoka County for saving a few bucks so high, that Kysylyczyn could lose his contract when it comes up for renewal in December to someone who nails a single Crayon-scribbled flyer to a telephone pole in Coon Rapids.
I exaggerate. But not by much.
By now, if you’re still riding the turnip truck, you are asking, “Why in 2015, with everyone and their dog operating a website, is anyone paying taxpayer money to print this stuff?” Plenty of politicians have been saying the same thing since the dawn of the internet age, and every year someone throws up a bill to let cities and counties drop the print thing (and its cost) and do exactly that. But the 340-member Minnesota Newspaper Association — which represents both Kysylyczyn and the Union in this little fight — has successfully lobbied against such proposals in order to protect what amounts to a tasty little sinecure.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people don’t give a hoot about public notices,” says Anoka County commissioner Matt Look. “What was the last time you or anyone you know read one of them. We’ve gone before the legislature and argued to have the law changed, but the Newspaper Association has influence.”
Look says all that he and his six other Anoka board members did by turning the contract over to Kysylyczyn “is save some money.”
How much money? About $50,000 this year, according to Kysylyczyn. (He won the 2015 contract by bidding $15,000.)
Tom Murray, general manager of the ABC papers, concedes the vote to accept Kysylyczyn’s bid was “all about the price,” journalistic credibility be damned. Murray points out that Kysylyczyn’s publication is essentially a staff of one — Kysylyczyn — and what editorial content there is comes with a pronounced political bias. Like the one where Kysylyczyn reported on himself in the third person for a “feature” on the fight between … himself and Murray. Then there’s the regular “Anoka County Watchdog” a “paid advertisement”/column from conservative local businessman, Harold Hamilton, railing against the usual liberal bogeymen. A sample:
DFL leaders have been calling the GOP budget a ‘shutdown’ budget, saying that they and their governor won’t negotiate in good faith to reach a compromise with the House majority to do the people’s work. Instead, they will refuse to compromise and push the state into a shutdown, hoping that the public will blame the GOP and give the DFL a political talking point going into the 2016 elections, when both the House and Senate will be on the ballot.
The DFL, instead of taking care of the people they claim to represent, will push them into uncertainty and chaos in order to score political points with the sheeple who will automatically blame the GOP and believe the canard that Republicans can’t effectively manage the House.
“For a government unit as big as Anoka County, it’s mind boggling that they would designate a publication like that, that makes no real attempt at covering the community, the paper of record,” says Murray.
If you were expecting Kysylyczyn to come off as another tin-foil-hat-wearing Tea Party culture warrior, though, you’ll be disappointed. He cleans up well for public appearances and makes a coherent argument, which is pretty much: If the standards are what they are, I’m as legitimate as anyone else — and I’m saving taxpayers money.
“[Murray and his company] are one of the biggest members of MNA,” Kysylyczyn says. “And they’ve used their influence to steadily whittle down the standards for papers of record. You used to have to be at least a weekly. But now semimonthly is good enough.”
Kysylyczyn says his business plan is modeled on that of Finance & Commerce and the St. Paul Legal Ledger, two publications of the floundering Dolan Company, which has enjoyed the benefits of public notice revenue for quite some time.
Attorney Mark Anfinson is by no means an unbiased voice in this matter. Part of his day job is acting as counsel to the MNA, and therefore both Murray and Kysylyczyn. Predictably, he offers an energetic defense of the system as it is.
His essential argument for print vs. government websites is that, “many, many, many more people see the notices while browsing a print publication” than clicking into a website, where, he says research “conclusively shows” readers go in search of one particular piece of information and leave, with little or no inadvertent exposure to other topics. He goes so far as to say, “The argument is clearer now in favor of print than it was 15 years ago.”
While he has no doubt that politicians of certain stripes and antagonisms are eager to terminate the printed notices process, what they fail to accept, he says, is that no publication anywhere reaches 100 percent of its available audience and the type of people consuming public notices in print where notices can’t be hacked are people with a unique investment in the community.
“So okay,” you may be saying, “How about the MNA at least using its muscle to shore up the minimum standards for publications of record? 400 copies of mostly partisan cant is not what anyone would call ‘getting the word out,’ is it?”
Anfinson is not necessarily opposed to this, but sees it as a matter for the Legislature. Unless and until elected officials decide to change the game, the MNA’s position is that, “We don’t have the thinking that this is something that requires our immediate attention.”