Publishing notices was once again the main topic of discussion for the Hillsboro City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
The meeting began with public comments, during which Marion County Record/Hillsboro Star-Journal/ Peabody Gazette-Bulletin Publisher Eric Meyer addressed the council, stating that he believed moving the legal notices from his paper to the city’s website would be a bad idea.
“I will say why is largely that it doesn’t add additional exposure. We already provide our legal notices free to everyone on many different platforms, more that have more traffic combined than the city website,” said Meyer.
In a previous meeting, it was mentioned that a subscription was needed to view the notices in the Marion County Record/Hillsboro Star-Journal/ Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, while anyone could view the notices for free on the city website as long as they had Internet access. Hillsboro City Administrator Matt Stiles corrected that information in the Oct. 4 meeting and explained that legal notices can be found for free in the three papers under the classified section.
“It should be noted that in the publications since 2019, legal notices have been summary notices, which refer readers to the city’s website for the full text of the action taken,” said Stiles.
Meyer also pointed out that the city website is a tangible medium that could be altered. He said the current officials are honorable people who would never do that but are just one election away from someone who might. He also mentioned that a hacker could mess with the website.
“We think that it’s vitally important to put these notices not only in a place where people will run across them without having to know to look for them. Because most people don’t go to a city website on a regular basis. They go to a newspaper. They go to our website; they go to other places where there’s different content they might be looking for,” said Meyer.
Meyer also argued against the council using the July 26 Kansas Attorney General-issued opinion 2023-5, which affirmed the opinion of the city’s legal council (TWG) that it was acceptable for second- and third-class cities to charter out of the requirements of K.S.A. 12-1651 and designate their website for legal publications.
“We think the interpretation you have that says that is legal is a theory. It’s not a proven fact. The attorney general’s office issued an opinion that is an opinion; it’s not a court ruling. We actually believe fairly strongly that the opinion is in error,” said Meyer. “So we’re not sure that it’s even open for overruling by charter ordinance.”
Meyer acknowledged the point previously made that the time of the city council meetings and his newspaper deadlines make it difficult at times to get affidavits and other items in a timely manner and said they would address those and work with the city. He also stressed the importance of supporting county businesses, which his papers are.
The council was given a chance to ask any questions of Meyer, but there were none. Meyer then made closing remarks, threatening legal action.
“I don’t mean to be threatening, but if you do this we will probably sue. That’s not the positive way of dealing with things, but we really don’t believe that this is a legal option. The state law talks about ordinance summaries, for example, says that you can put the ordinance summary in the newspaper and the full ordinance on your website. Well, the state already by doing that says it understands that websites aren’t newspapers,” said Meyer.
Mayor Lou Thurston asked lawyer J.T. Klaus of the city’s law firm, Triplett Woolf Garretson, to provide additional comments in light of the threat.
“The attorney general for the State of Kansas has said that if you want to do this, you can do it. That’s not precedent in a legal court of law. It’s not like we can say the court has decided this issue and therefore we can’t be sued for it. But it should provide you the protection of being able to say we certainly didn’t do anything wrong. And the chief lawyer in the State of Kansas said this was OK. So if you want to do it, you can do it,” said Kraus. “The attorney general’s opinions have been issued and have been relied upon by cities and local government for decades.”
Stiles explained that the cost issue is still the same as the last meeting in that it cost $9,000 in 2022 to run legals and notices in the paper and has cost $7,772.92 so far this year. Moving to the website for publications causes the annual amount spent to be significantly less.
As far as traffic, the city website sees a significant amount.
“At the last meeting, I talked about our analytics, and I got seven days now of analytics on that. We’ve gotten 1,700 views from 28 or 528 users,” said Stiles. “If you kind of do the math on that, and that’s typical data, then it’d be about 4,700 views a month, give or take.”
Thurston reminded the council that their job was to do what is best for the city and the citizens. He said they needed to decide as individual council members representing their specific areas of the city.
“I personally don’t respond well to threats. I don’t feel like the council should ever operate and make decisions based on somebody’s threat,” said Thurston.
The council voted 3-1 to make the city website the official newspaper of the City of Hillsboro with Byron McCarty voting against it.
“And I guess we’ll have to let Mr. Meyer do whatever he feels he needs to do. That’s a tough decision, and I appreciate everybody’s vote, your comments and your opinions. I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of making this issue very transparent and not taking this action lightly. We’ve spent two years really for this situation to end up where it is today. So I’m comfortable with the council’s action,” said Thurston.