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Grand Forks may pay more to publish minutes

GRAND FORKS - The city of Grand Forks may have to spend a "substantial" amount of tax dollars to publish its minutes and bills in the Herald, city attorney Howard Swanson told the City Council on Monday.

That's because 58 percent of city voters approved of a measure to that effect on Election Day on June 10.

Whether this was their intention or not is in dispute.

Many council members thought it could not have been their intention because the estimated cost of publication wasn't on the ballot, so voters didn't realize what they were in for. There is as of yet no estimate.

Council President Hal Gershman, who advertises his Happy Harry's Bottle Shop in the Herald, said it might be on the order of a "quarter million dollars."

Herald Publisher and Editor Mike Jacobs said Gershman is wrong. He doesn't expect to see that much in revenue from the city or from any single advertiser, he said.

Since 1996, state law has required a measure on publishing the minutes to be on the ballot every four years. Voters here have said "no" every year until this one.

The original state law won approval in 1994 by about two-thirds of the vote.Question of cost

The last time the city asked voters about publishing the minutes was in 2004. At the time, the city paid the Herald, the official city paper, about $30,000 a year, and city officials estimated a "yes" vote would double the cost.

Jack McDonald, the North Dakota Newspaper Association's attorney, said cities often base their estimates on the total spending on legal notices. This is wrong, he said, because notices include not just synopses of minutes but also announcements on zoning and bids.

Only the synopses would expand, he said.

The state sets the rate for legal notices so that the cost for publishing in the Herald is roughly the same as for a small weekly newspaper, he said.

Who knew?

What annoyed some council members was the fact that the issue had been under everyone's radar. City leaders did not get a heads-up from staff about the estimated cost, and no city leader asked for that figure.

"I feel like somebody should be fired," said Council member Eliot Glassheim, who was busy campaigning to keep his job during the election.

Most election talk had been focused on the seemingly neck-and-neck mayoral race and the controversial Riverside Pool ballot measure.

So why wasn't the estimated cost on the ballot in the first place?

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem opined in 2002 at the request of state Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, that allowing local leaders to put the estimated cost on the ballot measure was a possible way for them to prejudice voters.

Stenehjem recognized that local leaders might well argue that they were only trying to inform voters, but he warned that that's a slippery slope.

Local leaders still are free to talk about the costs with voters before Election Day. They did just that in 2004 when they voted on the ballot language for the measure. Voters said "no" to the measure that year.

This year, the council voted on the ballot language with no discussion, city minutes show.

Another four years

Gershman asked if the city could put the measure back on the November ballot for another vote.

The attorney general has an opinion on that, too, and the opinion is "no."

After Fargo voters passed a similar measure in June 2004, city leaders there tried to put it back on the November ballot. Andrist, a former newspaper publisher, requested and got another opinion.

Stenehjem said in his opinion that state law is very specific about when a re-vote is allowed. Specifically, Century Code section 40-01-09.1 states: "The minutes shall continue to be published until disapproved at a succeeding quadrennial election."

Barring an overturn of the law, Gershman suggested the city print the minutes in the smallest type possible to save space.