Chester legal notices, Town opts to use online-only publication

Chester town sign
Photo by Shawntae Stillwell

CHESTER, Vt. – The Chester Selectboard voted Wednesday to use an online-only publication for all of its legal notices, a move that’s been debated in the past.

“Every year, we have to reassign our newspaper of record for public notices and legal notices and want ads and whatever else we do,” said Selectboard Chairman Arne Jonynas on Tuesday.

For the past several years, The Vermont Journal has been Chester’s newspaper of record. Jonynas said the Chester Telegraph, an online-only publication, has applied to be the paper of record before, and on March 17 the Selectboard voted to go with the Telegraph.

“We’ve usually hesitated on using the Chester Telegraph because there was a little bit of, not controversy, but non-clarity as far as what the state statute said as far as what you could use for a paper of record.”

Secretary of State Jim Condos said Monday that his office doesn’t issue legal opinions of its own and has no legal authority to tell a town what to do in cases like these. He said the attorney general might have authority if a law were broken, but it’s not entirely clear if that’s happened.

Condos noted a legal opinion the town attorney for Chester offered it in 2016. The opinion was written by attorney James Carroll, of the firm English, Carroll, and Boe P.C. In it, Carroll notes there is no specific definition for “newspaper” in state statute, however the Legislature has made distinctions between “newspaper,” “paper,” and “mass electronic or digital communications.”

Carroll’s ultimate recommendation for Chester was, “In short, until such time as the Legislature has specifically indicated an intent to change the historical practice of issuing public notices within the State of Vermont, it is my recommendation that the Town of Chester continue to publish its official notices through a newspaper with a printed circulation in the Chester area.”

Carroll (now of the firm Carroll, Boe and Pell P.C.) sent the town a letter earlier this month confirming that his opinion hasn’t changed.

According to Condos, the Legislature at one point considered updating the law to clarify terms and possibly allow for online publications to be used for towns’ papers of record, but nothing ever came of it.

The concern here is that people won’t see the notices the town is posting in an online-only publication, said Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, on Monday. “Every municipality is supposed to declare a newspaper of record,” said Donoghue. “It’s been that way for a hundred years or more, I believe. Essentially, so that the government can tell the taxpayers where they can find official news from their community, so that they don’t have to go searching all over.”

Donoghue said it makes little sense to use an online only publication when the print publication has a web presence as well. He’s concerned that people who lack internet service, of which there are many in rural Vermont, will be shut out.

There are other reasons a print publication is preferable, he said. A town might find itself having to prove a legal notice was given, perhaps many years after the fact. With a printed newspaper, there will be physical copies in an archive somewhere, be it the newspaper itself or a local library. This might not be the case with a website.

Donoghue said newspapers do make money from the legal notices, as would any company providing a service, though how crucial this is to the paper’s bottom line depends on the publication.

“The town of Chester has a legal opinion in its hands, I don’t know if they’ve gotten a new one since, but from this legal opinion 5 years ago they were told, in a more than three-page letter, they should stick with print newspapers and stay away from online-only,” said Donoghue.

The pandemic and many things moving online is what helped spur this decision, said Jonynas. Had the pandemic not occurred, he doesn’t believe this would have happened. “What we’ve found over the last couple of years is that our local paper, the Chester Telegraph, which is an in-town business, has had a real lot of readership,” he said. “Almost everywhere I go in town I get people asking me about an article that was in the Chester Telegraph. They cover our local news, they cover our meetings, they do a good job. They do a professional, in-depth job, and it was hard to support them because of the law.”

He said the town spent about $10,000 in legal notices last year, and believes it would have spent half that had the Chester Telegraph been the paper of record.

Jonynas claimed that Chester has excellent, high-speed internet service, but for those who don’t have access, the town plans to work with them directly. “If there’s anybody in town that would like to have hard copies, paper copies, of any of these notices or any of these warnings and whatever else there is out there, to please let us know,” he said.

Julie Hance, Chester town manager, said this has come up before. “It’s never been an easy decision, but they felt they would try it for one year,” she said. “And we’ll make extra effort to reach those people that don’t have access to the internet. That’s really the concern, what demographic are we not reaching, so we’ll need to find other ways to reach that group of people.”

Article courtesy of Rutland Herald,

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