City revisiting newspaper decision; Council votes 5-1 to reconsider award to Tower paper, task force will be formed

by Tom Coombe
The Ely City Council will reconsider its decision to name a Tower-based publication as its official newspaper.
Members decided that Tuesday on a 5-1 vote, with mayor Chuck Novak opposed and Heidi Omerza absent.
The move came amid controversy, and protests from officials of the Ely Echo, over the council’s Jan. 15 decision to name the Timberjay as the city’s official publication.
The issue dominated this week’s regular council session, with Novak, council members and city attorney Kelly Klun weighing in, as well as local residents and the general manager of the Ely Echo - Nick Wognum.
Wognum said he was seeking “a level playing field” for his business, noting the Echo pays commercial real estate taxes and utility rates and challenging the Timberjay’s claim that the home of its Ely editor serves as the publication’s “office of issue.”
“That to me is what this is really all about,” said Wognum. “Who is serving this community as a business and who is operating out of a residence.”
State law requires the city to give priority to a publication based within the city limits, and Wognum pointed to the Timberjay’s letterhead as well as its official statement of ownership, which both list Tower as its home base.
Wognum also noted that at the time bids were submitted, the Timberjay did not have a permit to operate a business out of the home of editor Keith Vandervort, who lives at 629 East Boundary Street.
In an editorial in last week’s Echo, a photo of the home was published and Wognum told the council “I did receive one complaint, but that’s our point, it’s not an office, it’s a home, which by the way didn’t even have a home occupation permit.”

Citing requests from unidentified city officials who allegedly urged the Timberjay to bid for the publishing contract, Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger wrote in his bid to the council that his publication’s office of issue was being updated to reflect the Boundary Street address.
Novak defended the council’s decision and has cited city charter language that requires the city to choose “the lowest responsible bidder.”
The Timberjay’s bid was about half that of the Echo’s with sample ads submitted by both publications coming in at $8.85 for the Timberjay compared to $18.27 for the Echo.
Council member Paul Kess sought advice from Klun, asking “in your opinion does the Timberjay qualify as a responsible bidder?”
Klun deferred and sought more time to investigate.
“I don’t feel at this point I can provide a recommendation,” said Klun. “I would like to do further investigation. I just think more due diligence is required.”
Klun cited both “the issue of verification of known office,” as well as challenges raised by the Echo that the Timberjay falls short of having paid circulation of 400 within the city limits, another state law requirement.
Helmberger, in a Jan. 26 letter to Klun, contends his publication meets the 400 paid subscriber threshold but refused to offer verification. He said the list of subscribers would likely be classified as public data and thus accessible to competitors, including the Echo.
Council member Angela Campbell asked the matter be put on the agenda and presented two resolutions, including one to rescind the Jan. 15 decision.
The new council member said she was caught off guard by the bids, a late addition to the agenda and asked, unsuccessfully, to rescind her initial vote.
Council members wrestled with their next moves, ultimately deciding to set up task force, with three councilors to be chosen at random by Novak, to serve with Klun on a task force to investigate the newspaper issues.
“The attorney will work with the task group and report back to the council with findings,” said Novak.
Meanwhile, a vote to publish legal notices in both newspapers failed on a 3-3 vote, with Jerome Debeltz, Campbell and Al Forsman in favor and Novak, Kess and Ryan Callen in opposition.
Debeltz asked that “we publish in both newspapers until we get this straightened out.”
Callen argued against the motion on financial grounds, “just to save the taxpayers money.”
Two residents also added their input.
Anne Koskinen said she believes “the Echo responds to the citizens of Ely in all manners and I really appreciate that.”
Koskinen also questioned the legality and practicality of a home serving as a place of business.
Mike Banovetz challenged the Timberjay award on several fronts, particularly the Timberjay editor’s application for a home occupation permit, submitted more than a week after the council awarded the publishing contract.
Also at issue is the Timberjay’s standing as an official newspaper recognized by the Minnesota Secretary of State, a requirement for publishing legal notices of any sort.
As of Tuesday, the Timberjay was not listed on the Secretary of State website as an official legal newspaper, but the website was updated later in the week and included a listing for the Timberjay at the Boundary Street address.