An ordinance that would reduce the borough’s public notice requirements was unanimously approved in first reading by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly on Monday, but members stopped short of also approving a list of proposed cuts to ads published in the local newspaper.
Ketchikan borough code currently requires more published public notices than required by state law. Borough Clerk Kacie Paxton explained that the ordinance simply rolls those local requirements back to align with state rules.
Assembly meeting notices and agendas are among items that could no longer be published in the Ketchikan Daily News, under that ordinance. That and other items could lead to a savings about $25,000. Borough staff proposed complying with state law by instead moving toward posting public notices on the borough website and through free public notice services.
During a public hearing on the ordinance, Gregg Poppen, chairman of the borough Planning Commission, said that while the commission voted to move the ordinance forward, it was a split vote and there was concern from some commissioners.
Poppen encouraged the borough to work with the newspaper to find a solution that doesn’t potentially reduce public access.
“I speak only for myself to say I would like our local general government to do more than is legally the minimum requisite as far as public notice goes,” he said. “I would also expect the Daily News to negotiate in good faith and in keeping with their long commitment to the community.”
Tena Williams, co-publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News, also spoke. She said there needs to be open communication between the government and the community. The proposed ordinance, she said, would reduce that level of communication.
“We believe strongly in the fact that the information needs to be out there and we’re willing to do our part to help make that happen,” she said.
Assembly Member Rodney Dial said this cut was his suggestion. He said circulation is down at the local newspaper from 3,300 in 2014 to about 3,000 now, and internet use is up.
“Maintaining funding for something that’s not essential and not required by law amounts to a subsidy of one business by all other businesses and citizens,” he said.
Others on the Assembly, though, say that the internet is not easily accessed by everyone. Assembly Member Judith McQuerry said that even people with access to the internet would have to go in search of a meeting notice, rather than see it while perusing the paper for other reasons.
“Accidental information is very valuable. And that doesn’t happen at all with the internet,” she said. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for — if you don’t know how to find it — it’s as good as invisible.”
Assembly Member Stephen Bradford proposed an amendment that would direct borough staff to not change the current notification system until directed otherwise by the Assembly.
“And I offer that amendment simply to make it abundantly clear that while we may like cleaning up the language of the ordinance, we don’t want staff taking any action until we have had a chance to go over each of them and decide which of them we want to cut,” he said. “And I think we will want to cut some of them, but I think each should be specifically directed by us at this time.”
The amendment passed 6-1 with Dial voting no. The main motion then passed unanimously in first reading. The ordinance will come back for a second vote and public hearing.
Assembly members asked borough staff to also bring back options for reducing notification costs, including suggestions that the newspaper might offer.
That ordinance is part of a greater cost-cutting effort by the borough, and the Assembly heard a breakdown of other proposed cuts during a budget work session led by Finance Director Cynna Gubatayao.
The proposed cuts include reductions in service levels in various departments; not replacing a position at the Animal Protection Department that will become vacant this fall; reduction or elimination of some less-popular programs at the Gateway Recreation Center, and closing the center two hours early during summer months; and increasing fares and eliminating the April ride-free month for the bus system.
The goal of all those cuts is to eliminate a $1 million deficit in the borough’s FY2018 budget. Gubatayao added that the cuts equal about 4.5 percent of the borough’s general fund.
“All of these changes that are proposed in here now, we are preparing and bringing forward in the FY18 budget, unless you direct otherwise,” she said.
Most Assembly member applauded the suggested cuts and fee increases. McQuerry, though, said she’s worried that doubling bus fares to $2 a ride would mean fewer people choosing public transit.
In other matters, the Assembly voted 6-1 to not object to a state license application for a proposed new marijuana cultivation facility in the Ward Cove area. There was some public comment in opposition to the state license, but Assembly members noted that pot is legal now.
Assembly Member John Harrington was the only no vote.