Chester board gets feedback on paper of record choice

By Shawn Cunningham
© Telegraph Publishing LLC

Before calling its meeting to order on the evening of Wednesday, April 7, the Chester Select Board held a forum to hear public comments on its decision to name The Chester Telegraph as the town’s paper of record for legally required public notices for the coming year.

For several years previous to 2021, the town used the Vermont Journal, but sometimes reluctantly as that paper’s then publisher – Robert Miller – often took a confrontational approach to soliciting the town’s business.

Vermont Journal publisher Shawntae Webb reads a prepared statement accusing Chester Select Board members of violating their oaths of office. Photos by Shawn Cunningham unless otherwise noted

Wednesday night was no different, except for the absence of Miller who no longer holds the title of publisher. After being introduced to the board by Journal reporter Sharon Huntley, newly tapped publisher Shawntae Webb accused board members of violating their oaths of office by choosing an online newspaper.

Quoting a statute that for the purposes of public notices says a newspaper “shall mean a newspaper published in the county where the matter is situated…” Webb told the board “I believe you are wrongfully interpreting the statute as it was written … that law is in place to protect small newspapers such as us … it’s also a law the selectmen took an oath to abide by.” 

That did not sit well with some board members, especially Jeff Holden who said he had taken three oaths — to join the Army, to be a police officer and to be a select board member — that he holds “near and dear.”

Board member Jeff Holden speaks of the oaths he ‘holds near and dear.’

Webb also told the board she thought it possible they were opening themselves up to lawsuits or requests that they resign.

Rutland Herald editor Steve Pappas told the board that Vermont statutes require a newspaper be “printed.” However, a search of the legislature’s website found 306 uses of the word “newspaper,” none of which referred to “print.” He also cited the Journal’s mailing to all postal addresses in Chester as “100 percent penetration” while not mentioning that people who do not use the internet and live in communities that publish notices in the Herald must either visit their library or buy the Herald every day to see if there are any notices.

Rutland Herald editor Steve Pappas saying he’s ‘defending a source of revenue which is huge to us.’ Image courtesy of SAPA-TV

Board chair Arne Jonynas asked Pappas to speak about the financial relationship between the Herald and the Journal. Pappas said that the company that owns the Herald — Sample News Group of Pennsylvania — is interested in the Journal but that a deal has not been completed. According to the business database of Vermont’s Secretary of State, Journal LLC, which is managed by George “Scoop” Sample, was formed in April 2018, and has been publishing the Journal since September of that year, according to that paper’s printed ownership statement. Miller’s former company, KMA Inc., was dissolved in January of 2019, the state database says.

Pappas’ Herald recently published an article by Keith Whitcomb, which was reprinted by Sample News Group’s Times Argus and Eagle Times as well as the Journal, which in effect argued for towns to use printed papers as papers of record. However the article never contacted The Chester Telegraph for comment nor, more seriously, did it disclose Sample’s interest in the Journal retaining the public notices. According to the Society for Professional Journalists, the relationship is a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed.

On Wednesday night, however, after prodding from Select Board chair Arne Jonynas, Pappas  said he was “defending a source of revenue which is huge to us.” He later downplayed that statement.

Board chair Arne Jonynas told the meeting that the statute was unclear with ‘a lot of ambiguity and gray areas.’

After Pappas spoke, Jonynas took a few moments to “clarify as few things.”

“I really dislike (money) being characterized as the reason we” chose The Chester Telegraph, said Jonynas, adding that that factors of content and coverage were among the reasons and that he feels that decision-making at a local level should be allowed.

“The state statute to me is not clear at all…” said Jonynas, “it doesn’t define newspaper and say ‘print.’ There’s a lot of ambiguity and gray areas.”

A number of residents spoke, some defending the Telegraph as the lone paper of record and some suggesting that the board also place notices in a printed newspaper. In the previous meeting  and in this one, Jonynas said that the town would mail paper copies of public notices to those in town who want them.

At this meeting, the board decided to put the issue on the agenda for its next meeting.

Telegraph publisher and editor Cynthia Prairie attended the meeting but said she decided not to speak because she wanted to hear what everyone had to say.

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  1. Jesse Atkins says:

    “In the previous meeting and in this one, Jonynas said that the town would mail paper copies of public notices to those in town who want them.”

  2. Sandra Vincent says:

    A “public notice” needs to be accessible to ALL residents. Publishing online only will not reach folks who do not have computer or cell phone.