Wichita may pull public notices from the Wichita Eagle. But will that hurt transparency?

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The City Council will review its contract with McClatchy at its April 2 meeting.

The City of Wichita could soon become one of the largest cities in Kansas to withdraw its public notices from its paper of record.

The City Council wants to review the city’s contract with McClatchy, the Wichita Eagle’s parent company. The surprise move at the council’s first evening meeting came at about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when only half a dozen attendees were still in the audience.

“No citizen is reading a legal notice in the newspaper anyway,” council member Dalton Glasscock said. “I’ve never done that. I can guarantee you most citizens aren’t doing that anyway.”

The city currently spends $150,000 a year to publish the legal notices, which deal mainly with zoning cases, changes in city ordinances, budget issues and other city happenings.

Representatives at McClatchy declined to comment.

The Kansas Press Association, which collects all of the state’s public notices through its media partners and archives them, says publishing notices in the paper helps keep local governments accountable.

“There’s a lot of benefits to keep it in a third party, but number one is transparency,” KPA Executive Director Emily Bradbury said.

Some council members pushed back against the notion that $150,000 a year – about .02% of the city’s annual budget – is a waste of taxpayers money, especially when it comes to transparency.

“I know you’re not wanting to spend the money but some people do still read the paper,” council member Maggie Ballard said. “So maybe we could focus more on getting people to read the paper and supporting our local newspaper.”

Glasscock, who suggested the city review its contract with McClatchy, and the new mayor, Lily Wu, questioned whether the notices were a “redundancy” because they’re already published on the city’s website.

“What I’m hearing right now is that we want to publish information in whether it’s radio, whether it’s print, whether it’s TV, we want these traditional media to still provide that information,” Wu, a former television reporter, said. “But what I’m also hearing is that maybe not everyone gets just the public notifications.”

Press advocates say regardless of whether the city already publishes the notices on its website, it’s in the public’s interest to have them published by a third party like the Eagle. Bradbury pointed to several instances of city and university websites in Kansas recently being hacked, including the state’s courts system.

“It’s like the fox watching the henhouse,” Bradbury said. “What I always tell public officials (is) … that I feel like transparency not only protects the public, but it protects the good public servant, too.

“It prevents any sort of accusations of hiding any information… I can tell you that with 3,500 different websites, if every governmental entity in the state of Kansas all the way from water boards to municipalities, that the average Kansan is not going to go looking for all of those on all of those different websites, and it would be a lot to maintain.”

recent attorney general’s opinion has allowed cities in Kansas to establish home rule in their charter ordinance dealing with public notices because there is no uniformity in state law, according to Bradbury. That rule doesn’t apply to Kansas counties, however, which are required by state law to publish public notices in a periodical.

Some City Council members wondered during the meeting whether they can publish the notices in smaller papers in the city, including the Community Voice or the Active Age.

The same Kansas law sets guidelines on which outlets can publish notices. To qualify, the outlets must have paid subscriptions and publish at least 50 times a year with a periodical mail status.

“If another newspaper came in and tried to maybe do a bid on them, they can do that as long as they meet the requirements,” Bradbury said.

And if citizens don’t like the new charter ordinance that could be drafted by the city regarding public notices, they can petition and force it to a special vote.

“At the end of the day, it’s about transparency,” Bradbury said, “and we feel like we’re advocates for the public. And we know that transparency will be harmed, and the public will be harmed, if the public notices are pulled from newspapers.”

The City Council will review its contract with McClatchy at its April 2 meeting.

Sedgwick County in 2017 canceled its contract with McClatchy and instead began publishing notices in the Derby Informer.

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