This summer, Clark County's legal notices will begin appearing primarily in a community weekly, not The Columbian, following a Tuesday decision of the county's board of commissioners.
The board's action ignored the wishes of the county's general services director, who said such a decision would cost the county more money in the long run. It also runs counter to a bid requirement that legal notices appear in a newspaper with countywide circulation.
Instead, Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore voted to hand the contract to The Reflector, a paper that serves the northern part of the county, citing an estimated $20,000 in upfront savings.
"I think cost is a really big factor here," Mielke said Tuesday. "The papers are about the same size (in terms of) information."
But Mike Westerman, of the county's general services department, warned that publishing the notices in a community weekly newspaper instead of a daily could cause delays for county projects and ultimately cost more money. The reason, he said, was because the county would have to double up its publication of legal notices in The Columbian for projects of importance to parts of the county not primarily served by The Reflector, including Vancouver, Camas and Washougal.
"(Those notices) would post in both papers," Westerman said, directing his comments to Mielke. "The cost savings you're acknowledging would be a moot point. We'd actually be paying additional costs because everything would be going in The Reflector and also in The Columbian."
Madore, meanwhile, said he felt comfortable publishing most of the county's legal notices in The Reflector, especially if the county takes additional steps to advertise legal notices on its website.
By law, public agencies are required to provide notice of meetings, bids and other matters in a newspaper of record. That comes on top of any other type of notice an agency provides, such as on its own website.
But it comes at a cost, an often lucrative one for the newspapers that bid for the ads.
The Reflector's per-line advertising rates are slightly less than half what they are for The Columbian. But The Columbian reaches four times as many Wednesday readers — a total of 112,359 — than The Reflector, which publishes once a week on that day.
Commissioner Steve Stuart dissented, saying that placing legal notices into a paper with a smaller reach would do a disservice to county residents.
"I do recognize the higher cost," Stuart said, before voicing opposition to the notion of cutting costs while providing fewer opportunities for residents to see the notices.
Stuart was also skeptical that Mielke and Madore were motivated solely by cost savings, saying their decision seemed more about the commissioners' disagreeing with The Columbian's content.
"If this is based on costs, you've made no case on how you would save money, so it can't be based on that alone," he said. "The decision you seek lacks transparency; it lacks an understanding of this whole process; and it is based on a grudge."
Those sentiments were seconded by Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian, who said Mielke and Madore's decision didn't come as a surprise.
"They would do anything in their power to put a dent in the paper's coverage," he said.
It wouldn't be the first time an agency pulled its legal notices from the county's largest paper.
In 1995, Clark Public Utilities pulled its notices. That decision stemmed from a series of articles the paper published regarding conflict of interest charges directed at Dean Sutherland, a state senator who was also a paid consultant to the utility.
The contract will go into effect on July 1 and last for a year.