City stays with Tower paper; Timberjay publisher says city leaders “practically begged” him to bid against Ely business

by Tom Coombe -

Ely council members reaffirmed their decision to send the city’s legal publishing dollars to Tower, but their 5-1 vote came after both legal and ethical challenges.
The council, with Angela Campbell voting against and Paul Kess absent, stood by its Jan. 15 decision to name the Tower-based Timberjay as the city’s official publication, citing a recommendation of a task force appointed by mayor Chuck Novak.
At the council meeting, Nick Wognum, general manger of the Ely Echo, reiterated his objections to the decision.
Wognum told the council “there has been unrefuted evidence that the Timberjay did not meet the legal requirements to be a legal newspaper when it submitted a bid that you are voting on.”
He cited documentation that showed the Timberjay was not listed as a legal newspaper with the state of Minnesota, as required by state statute, when bids were submitted last month.
Wognum also challenged the Timberjay’s claims that a residence on East Boundary Street meets requirements to be a newspaper’s “office of issue,” and noted that the publication did not have a home occupation permit when it submitted its bid.
While the Timberjay subsequently obtained a home occupation permit and completed legal newspaper filing after a Dec. 31 deadline, Wognum likened it to driving “50 miles an hour down Sheridan Street” and slowing down once the driver observes police chief John Lahtonen.
“Lahto pulls us over and says ‘you’re doing 50 miles an hour and I’m going to give you a ticket and you say ‘no, no, no, now we’re legal.’ It’s the same thing here,” said Wognum.
Wognum also took issue with correspondence from Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger to city attorney Kelly Klun, included in Tuesday’s council packet, in which Helmberger said “city officials were practically begging us” to bid for the city’s legal publishing contract.
“Think about that,” said Wognum. “Local appointed and or elected officials went to an out of town business that does not pay taxes here and urged them to bid on a city contract. As a taxpayer, both residential and commercial, I would like to know which city officials contacted an out of town business on this issue. Are there other Ely businesses who do work for the city who should be worried about the same retribution?”
Wognum told the council “you’ve backed yourself into a corner. To go against the Echo’s bid would be going against calls you made to the Timberjay. Your action tonight hurts a business that pays $2,000 in commercial property taxes here... Your action hurts a local business, it hurts local families and it’s wrong.”
Council members did not respond to Wognum’s remarks and instead moved directly to vote, with Campbell casting the lone “no” vote. Campbell’s request to speak after the decision was blocked by Novak, who said debate had ended.
Earlier, council member Al Forsman defended the work of the task force, that also included Kess and Heidi Omerza, who met in secret Feb. 8, with attorney Kelly Klun and city clerk and operations director Harold Langowski to address the issues.
“I know there are a lot of strong opinions on this,” said Forsman. “The task force has looked at the laws governing this. There were minor discrepancies that came up and were explained away as simple oversights. At the advice of the group and our legal counsel and the work she did on our behalf, this is the way we are going to have to address this now.”
Forsman added there was “not any substantial reason to reject” the Timberjay bid, but he appeared open to pursuing a charter change that would allow factors other than low bid to be taken into consideration.
According to figures provided by both publications, the Timberjay’s bid was about half that of the Echo’s with sample ads coming in at $8.85 for the Timberjay compared to $18.27 for the Echo.
Minutes of the task force session showed the group addressed the legal ramifications of several potential decisions, from reaffirming the council’s original decision, rejecting both the Timberjay and Echo bids, or rejecting the Timberjay bid based on the Secretary of State filing and home office issues.
In a Feb. 7 letter to Klun, Helmberger said “there is nothing that prohibits” the Timberjay from claiming the Boundary Street residence of editor Keith Vandervort as its office and said both he and Vandererort were approached by unidentified city officials to bid against the Echo,which had been the city’s legal publication since 2015.
“For city officials to ask us to bid, and then throw out a bid on a questionable justification would be troubling,” Helmberger wrote.
The Timberjay closed its downtown office four years ago and has not bid for the city contract until this year, when it declared Vandervort’s home as its office of issue. Helmberger wrote that “we didn’t declare it as our office earlier because Keith didn’t want the inconvenience of making his home open for business.”
Helmberger later wrote that his publication “inadvertently failed to include a $75 check” to the Secretary of State prior to the Dec. 31 deadline, but did so after discovering the oversight in January, when it changed its records to establish the office of issue at Vandervort’s home.
While the Secretary of State only listed the Timberjay as a legal publication in February, after bids on the city contract were accepted, Helmberger insisted that “any suggestion that the Ely Timberjay’s legal status lapsed as a result of this issue is unfounded.”
Wognum disagreed and told the council “you have been tasked with making the right decision and yet you appear to be ignoring the facts in order to fit the conclusion you want to reach, plain and simple.”
Wognum said he asked to be notified of the task force meeting and that the city failed to do so.
“Your communication skills are lacking,” he said.