By Tim Kalinowski on November 19, 2020.
City council is considering a bylaw change which could have severe repercussions for the viability of the Lethbridge Herald newspaper going into an uncertain year in 2021, and which could leave local seniors, in particular, disenfranchised from full, transparent public engagement with city council and the City of Lethbridge.
City planning staff brought forth a proposal during Monday’s public hearing to cut back print advertising funding and reduce the amount of information which would appear in the newspaper when public hearings and other important public notices are required, by instead using the ads to point people to online notices.
City staff stated it spent about $99,000 per year on such ads, or about $1 per citizen, but even this information presented to council on Monday appears incorrect considering the City spent only about $79,000 on such notices in the newspaper last year.
Under the Municipal Government Act the City is required to advertise by designated print media to ensure all citizens in the community have access to important information regardless of their digital literacy or access. The Herald is the only designated media which can meet the requirements of the MGA in Lethbridge; thus this bylaw change has targeted and direct implications for The Herald alone, and no other businesses or advertising markets in the city. This change will not impact those who rent signage to the City, for example, or those offering television advertising spots, online advertisements, or radio ads.
According to Coun. Rob Miyashiro about 20 per cent of local seniors do not have access to the internet and are completely reliant on the newspaper for all print forms of public information notice, and thus to reduce the amount of information provided through that print media would have to be made up somehow.
Coun. Blaine Hyggen asked how City staff intended to do that. They said affected seniors, during this time of COVID-19, could come down to city hall and get a printed copy from staff on duty there.
Hyggen then asked if this reduction to print ads would bring any greater degree of transparency to city council decision making at a time when people were highly critical of local government on that issue?
Would the change represent an enhanced level of transparency by reducing greatly one form of public notification?
Staff admitted the change would marginally reduce the City’s costs, but would not offer the public access to more information resources than what already exist right now.
“We are always talking about increasing transparency on city council,” Hyggen later said. “I don’t think we should be looking at ways of offering less.”
Coun. Joe Mauro then asked staff how come the print ads were costing the City anything at all, as it was something developers were required to do anyway? And should that not be at their own expense?
City manager of planning and development Maureen Gehring acknowledged this was true in most jurisdictions, but in the City of Lethbridge her department has until now been supplementing the cost of these ads by $400 per ad to help local developers defray their costs.
Mauro replied rather than get rid of resources which help the public stay informed through the reduction to print media advertising he was more in favour of transferring the cost of that to those who were required under the Municipal Government Act to put the public notices in the newspaper in the first place.
“That’s just the cost of doing business,” he said.
Coun. Jeffrey Coffman was also unsure the amount of reduced information in the newspaper being proposed by staff would meet the needs of the community. He made a motion to defer decision on the matter for two weeks to the Nov. 30 council meeting so he could see samples of the new ads and sizes being proposed, to which all councillors agreed.
Herald publisher Brian Hancock said he was greatly disappointed the matter was even being discussed, considering council’s stated desire to help provide stimulus for local businesses in Lethbridge during this period of economic hardship when other advertising revenues were also in decline.
A decision to reduce print media advertising, he said, would have a direct economic impact on a downtown business which employs dozens of people in the community, and contributes greatly to keeping local citizens informed about what their local government is up to on a daily and weekly basis.
“This year The Herald will pay in excess of $185,000 in City taxes and utilities (compare that with our sister paper in Medicine Hat paying $137,000),” he said. “We are also forced (yes, no choice) to pay an extra “Downtown Lethbridge” tax to the tune of another $1,742, although this year the Downtown Tax was waived due to COVID. We are one of the longest-serving local businesses in Lethbridge (over 125 years in operation) employing over 60 full-time staff and countless part-time carriers and drivers. We do our share in this city, but I guess ‘support local’ is just a nice slogan that our own City administration is debating not living up to.”
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