County officials chose Methow Valley and Oroville papers

By Marcy Stamper

An annual process that is normally a formality became contested this month after the Okanogan County commissioners named the Methow Valley News and the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune as the county’s newspapers of record and the Omak Chronicle questioned what it called a discrepancy in their bid documents.

The Chronicle pointed to figures in the cover letter submitted by the two newspapers that cites a 2,750-copy press run for the News and a 1,970-copy press run for the Gazette-Tribune, for a combined total circulation of 4,720.

The affidavit of publication, an official document filed with the U.S. Postal Service and included with the bids, showed paid distribution of 2,741 for the Methow Valley News and of 1,389 for the Gazette-Tribune, a total of 4,130. That put paid distribution at 590 below the numbers in the cover letter.

The bid documents were submitted on behalf of both newspapers by Cathy Harry, the legal advertising representative for Sound Publishing, the Bellevue-based company that owns the Gazette-Tribune.

The press run — the total number of newspapers printed — is higher than circulation because unsold copies are returned by newsstands. The call for bids asked newspapers to provide circulation numbers verified by the sworn statement of ownership submitted to the postal service.

The Chronicle did not present a formal written complaint, but called Laleña Johns, the county’s clerk of the board, who is handling the matter for the commissioners, to question the difference, said Johns.

The commissioners awarded the contract to the News and Gazette-Tribune on May 31 after comparing a joint bid from the two newspapers with the bid submitted by the Chronicle. Publishing the legal notices in the News and Gazette-Tribune would cost $1 less per column inch than in the Chronicle, according to numbers compiled by Johns.

According to its bid, the Chronicle’s circulation is 5,242, with 4,824 of that inside Okanogan County. Combined in-county circulation for the News and Gazette-Tribune is 3,208.

Certain matters, including land-use decisions, special meetings and some court proceedings, are required by law to be advertised in the newspaper of record.

By state law, the newspaper of record must be a general-circulation newspaper. There is no requirement for elected officials to select the paper with the widest circulation. The law says the contract should go to “the best and lowest responsible bidder, giving consideration to the question of circulation.”

Together, the News and the Gazette-Tribune have sales outlets around the county, said Don Nelson, publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News. In addition, the two newspapers said they would continue to post the ads on their websites and on a statewide website offered by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, of which all three papers are members.

Some have suggested that the contretemps may have political underpinnings because of a remark by County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy at a commissioners’ meeting in March, but Nelson said it was purely a financial consideration for the News and Gazette-Tribune. “We’re not trying to do anything other than present a business opportunity,” he said.

At the March 1 meeting, Kennedy “stated her concern about the county’s contract with the Omak/Okanogan Chronicle for designation of Newspaper of Record. Have they violated the contract by publishing a threat to the commissioners regarding this year’s election,” according to the county’s official minutes. The minutes continue, “Mr. Lin [the county’s deputy prosecuting attorney] stated if we start down that road by putting contingencies on what we can say or not say, we would open the county up to a lawsuit. He strongly advised the board not to open that can of worms.”

The Chronicle editorial referenced by Kennedy sharply criticized the commissioners for considering sending juvenile offenders to a facility three-and-a-half hours away. It ended with the hope that “commissioners will remember that we will all have a choice come November when we sit down with our election ballots and are asked for our opinion on their future.”

The Chronicle has held the contract for legal notices for the past three years, said Johns. The Gazette-Tribune and the Brewster-based Quad City Herald had the contract for eight years before that. At that time those newspapers were both owned by NCW Media, which still owns the Herald as well as the Lake Chelan Mirror and Leavenworth Echo.

“From our perspective, we made a bid and they made a bid. The commissioners made a decision that seemed to settle it, but apparently not,” said Nelson.

The county commissioners scheduled a meeting with representatives from the newspapers to discuss the bids on June 15 at 10 a.m. The year for legal advertising begins July 1.