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Our View:  Threats to Transparency and Public Notice; While They’re Watching You, Who’s Watching Them

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Update:  We have made changes and additions to the following editorial. 

Editors Note:  The West Suburban Journal on Wednesday issued a correction to the following editorial for incorrectly stating Bruce Sagan is the Chairman of Cook County Suburban Publisher’s.  Sagan is the Secretary of Accredited Chicago Newspaper, a Public Notice Placement service, associated with and sharing the same physical address with Cook County Suburban Publishers, located in the Hyde Park Herald building 815 Van Buren, Chicago .  

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine……

The sole purpose of Public Notice serves to inform the public about government activities, thus enabling citizens to make well-informed decisions. Public notice provides citizens the opportunity to influence governing bodies and to be active participants in a democratic society.

The Illinois Public Notice laws exist to ensure transparency in government and easy access to information. Before a newspaper is designated by the State to publish Public Notices, the newspaper must demonstrate that it has a circulation, a minimum percentage of locally-generated news content, a local publishing address, and a continuous publishing history; 52 consecutive weeks in Illinois. The latter requirement ensures stability in the venue for public notices, so that the public will have a reliable place to search for public notices.

When Public Notice is treated as entitlement they do not serve their purpose.  It negates their purpose.

Cook County Suburban Publishers and Accredited Chicago Newspapers, separate but affiliated by physical location, carry out the important and legal responsibility of placing notices in accredited daily and weekly newspapers.  The group is a registered as a Cook County vendor under status “Minority Women Business Enterprise”, according the official county website.  The West Suburban Journal has been an associate of the group for about 11 years.  It took two years following our accreditation to break down its door, with the help of then President John Stroger, to begin placing notices.

In the years since, we receive from Cook County Suburban Publisher’s; the Proviso Tax Assessment; Proviso Election Ballot Samples; Proviso Tax Scavenger List; and Proviso Township Tri-Annual Tax Assessment notice, in addition to weekly foreclosures.  Cook County Suburban Publisher’s procures the Public Notice from the Law Bulletin, which procures the Public Notice from Cook County government bodies such as; the Treasurer’s Office; the Assessor’s Office and the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

For the last 3-years, we noticed an exceedingly sharp decrease in foreclosures notices from Cook County Suburban Publisher’s, more than 300% in some cases, while home foreclosures across Illinois are down only about 15-20 percent as of 2016, according to the Law Bulletin.  The Village of Maywood, and Proviso Township, was hit hard by foreclosures, due to bad sub-prime mortgage lending practices, and received Emergency Federal Foreclosure Relief.  That’s significant. This has cost residents.  This has cost West Suburban Journal.  And sadly, this has cost several of our employees.  Ninety-nine percent of our employees reside in Proviso Township across Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview, more than 98 percent are African-American, and more than 80 percent have been employed 5 years or more.  The West Suburban Journal serves on average communities with a 90 percent and greater African-American population, as well as an emerging Latino population.  For most small independent newspapers, those serving black and Latino communities especially, Public Notice revenues help to keep papers in print, offer local jobs, internship opportunities for budding journalist, creatives, high school students, and they help to circulate dollars in desert neighborhoods.  While that’s not their purpose, it’s a subsequent fact.  

Pie Chart Analysis: Between Jan 1, 2017 to June 8, 2017, Cook County Suburban Publisher’s placed Maywood foreclosure notices, for Wednesday Journal Inc., that published across 4 weeklies 263 times.  Divide the total 263 by 4 newspapers for a total 66, 88 percent, paid Public Notices, published by Wednesday Journal for Maywood.  The 4 weeklies in which Maywood notices publish include; Oak Park, distance from Maywood, 4.4 Miles; Forest Park, distance from Maywood, 1.5 Miles; Riverside, distance from Maywood, 4.1 Miles, and Brookfield, distance from Maywood, 4.4 Miles.  During this period, Cook County Suburban Publisher’s placed Maywood foreclosure notices for West Suburban Journal to publish across one paper 37 times, divided by 3 for a total 12 notices, 15 percent.  The West Suburban Journal Maywood weekly is the legal paper of record for the Village of Maywood, with a publication origination of zero (0) miles, circulation of 6,000.  The Public Notice placements by Cook County Suburban Publisher’s, for Maywood, 60153, herein, is not inclusive.  Maywood foreclosures [;ace during this period by Cook County Suburban Publisher’s include; Shaw Publications, origination LaGrange, Distance 7.1 Miles; Lawndale News, , origination Lawndale-Garfield, Distance 8.4 Miles;  22nd Century Media, origination Northbrook, Distance 27.4 Miles, as well as the Daily Herald.  The trend is constant 2.5 years years at minimum.  Source:  Public Notice Illinois   The unemployment rate for Maywood is 21.0 percent, 3 times the Cook County and state average.  The unemployment rate for Oak Park is 5.2 percent.  Source:  Il Department of Unemployment.

Over the course of 3-years, we questioned Cook County Suburban Publisher’s about the practice of publishing notices in community papers the notice does not serve.   We are conveniently told, “notices for your zip code(s) needed to publish in a Wednesday paper…yours is a Thursday paper.”  However, upon review of the Law Bulletin, we discerned that the Public Notice(s) in question are published in ample time to publish in a Thursday weekly.   Last week West Suburban Journal changed its publication date of nearly 13 years from Thursday to Wednesday, and crossed our fingers that eliminates the alleged problem.  This week we retained legal counsel.

The Law Bulletin procures notices meant to notify the subject(s) of a legal matter, such as Name Change, Assumed Business Name, Foreclosure, Demolition, Probate, Death, Divorce and Marriage.  They aggregate the notices from the County Circuit Clerk, court dockets and other means.  The Law Bulletin has a circulation of about 3,000 – 3,600, according to their circulation data.  They do not meet the legal definition of a newspaper and they distribute primarily to law firms.  We have never seen a Law Bulletin of general circulation in Maywood, Bellwood, or Broadview.  We bet good money neither have you, unless, however, you frequent the Maybrook Courthouse.  Further explanations by Cook County Suburban Publisher’s include, “there was a glitch in the system”.  However, there was never a memo to publishers about the alleged “glitch”.  In addition, we are told, “we were hacked”.  There was never a memo to publishers about an alleged “hack”.  Keep in mind, we’re newspaper folks, and open line of communication is our business.

One day after we raised the question to Cook County Suburban Publishers about the misappropriation of Public Notices, we were taken to task –with a ruler no less.  Bruce Sagan, Accredited Chicago Newspaper, Secretary, and owner, Hyde Park Herald, suggested in an email Friday to Nicole Trottie, publisher, West Suburban Journal, that our paper was less than 100 sq. inch per text/image area.  In layman’s terms; our weekly did not satisfy the legal requirement to publish Public or Legal Notice.  The West Suburban Journal has long maintained its requirements per the statutes.   However, our weekly was about 0.5” short – a printer error.  The technicality was corrected.  But we know darn-well the task of breaking out the ruler to measure our paper was less about a technicality and more about the questions of accountability presented to Cook County Suburban Publisher’s about its placement of Public Notice in newspapers. In other words, “Don’t question us” or as we’ve been told on several occasions, “we’ll cut you off.”

A short time later, we received an email from Ron Kline, IT manager, Illinois Press Association. Kline requested that West Suburban Journal upload “all” its pages to the Public Notice Illinois (PNI) web site, in addition to Public Notices.   The reason, Kline said of his request, “compliance that all Public Notices are uploaded”.  The West Suburban Journal has uploaded notices since the outset of PNI. At the time PNI was established and entered into law our publisher was an IPA sitting board member.   The Public Notice law requires newspapers upload only Public Notices. The West Suburban Journal has contracted a Public Notice vendor to facilitate, upload, certify and check Public Notice for accuracy.

The question of Cook County Suburban Publisher’s impropriety is raised when a publisher/board member received the bulk of Maywood notices, 88 percent, between Jan 1, 2017 and June 8, 2017,  is a Cook County Suburban Publisher Board Member.  Wednesday Journal, Inc, Oak Park River Forest, publisher, Dan Haley, receives Public Notices from Cook County Suburban Publisher’s.  He is also vested.  Haley receives shareholder profits from tax payer dollars, in addition to they payment for publishing Public Notice.  All together 6 or more newspaper owners and or investors comprise the Cook County Suburban Publisher’s Board of Directors.  To add, Haley, helped to launch a publication in Maywood, in March 2017, just prior to the elections.  The Village Free Press, in its debut issue, names Haley the “publisher”.  According to an email from Haley, he provides “services” to Michael Romain, Village Free Press, “editor”.  Romain, who is African-American, in-turn, pays Haley for his services (sales, layout and design, print, distribution) from his Maywood gross profits, according to Romain.   Romain stated, in an email to the WSJ publisher (not the editor), he is the VFP publisher.

Haley and others like him, transfer money from destitute communities, by steering Public Notice intended to serve transparency and information for the general public of a community he does not serve.  Talking dollars and sense, the only purpose publishing a Public or Legal Notice in a publication that does not serve the community, when a legal paper of record exists in that community, is self-serving.  The practice is likened to the sub prime mortgage lenders, and white-collar poaching of black communities.  Click the following link to Chicago Crain’s report: Wealth Divide:  Exploring the stark dividing line between the rich and the poor  It’s not good business for newspapers, the community or taxpayers.  Last week we spoke to a recently terminated Wednesday Journal reporter.   She explained that her termination was one of several due to “financial difficulty”.   She added, Wednesday Journal laid off its reporters and assigned one editor per paper.   The Forest Park Review, a 100-year old weekly, published by Wednesday Journal, last page count was about 20-24 pages.  That’s lean for a centurion weekly.

West Suburban Journal, founder and publisher, L. Nicole Trottie, is the first African-American woman to launch an accredited weekly newspaper in Illinois’ 152-year newspaper rich history.  She was the first African-American woman elected to serve on the Illinois Press Association Board of Directors in its 152-year history.   She launched the West Suburban Journal and served the IPA voluntarily 7 years to uphold the standards of newspapers, newspaper ethics and government.   She recently was asked twice by Cook County Suburban Publisher’s Chairman a seat on the board of directors.  She twice declined.  Trottie met with Sen. Jim Oberweis (R) 25th District last Friday to discuss a bill he set forth (SB 2032) to remove Public Notice from newspapers. While the two sit opposite sides of the fence on the bill, both heartily agree Public Notice should publish in their respective community newspaper.  Should Public Notice not serve their intended purpose, but the interest of a select few, they agreed the government should remove Public Notice from newspapers to publish on government web sites. Period.

The West Suburban Journal has for 13 years this August covered community and government news of Maywood, Bellwood and Broadview.   We are circulated throughout – 6,000 per week.  We receive between 4,500 – 6,400 verified online readers per week, with 420 average online views per story.  Our web site is translated, at the click of a mouse, from the English language, to Spanish, French, German and more. We boast over 1,200 subscribers.  We are committed to our communities, our residents, transparency and newspapers.  We love our communities, we love the debates, we love the dialogue that line our pages each week, and we love helping communities become better.

In the spirit of the law, transparency and access to information, Public Notice is meant to be treated with care and respect, not to be monopolized and treated as entitlement, so it remains an invaluable resource for Maywood, Bellwood and Broadview residents, and those alike throughout the state.

The West Suburban Journal will publish weekly an editorial titled “Public Notice Transparency”, or maybe something more catchy, to include a Public Notice summary for Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview and Proviso Township and their placement by Cook County Suburban Publishers, as well as other vendors.  The purpose:  To shine a light on Pubic Notice best and worst practices.  The report will include a list of where the notice originates, where the notice was placed, and by what vendor the notice was distributed, and the relationship of the newspaper and the vendor.   We will send a copy each week to legislators, members of the Black Caucus, and Cook County officials.  We will forward this editorial to the Illinois Press Association for review and consideration to publish in the IPA monthly publication, Press Lines.  More editorial to follow on the Illinois Press Association in the coming weeks.  For recent news of the Illinois Press Association visit the following link to the Illinois Times Weekly Editorial;  Take This Plaque and Shove It:  http://npaper-wehaa.com/illinoistimes/2017/04/27/#?article=2911281 

The West Suburban Journal has partnered with accredited newspapers from Austin, Chicago; Chicago near West Suburbs; Central Illinois; Proviso Township and Chicago Minister’s Alliances; attorney’s and community activists to form Cook County Accredited Newspapers Assoc. & Legal Notice Compliance.  Our mission is to ensure Public Notice and FOIA compliance and transparency for accredited newspapers and citizens.  We are a Public Notice watch dog and advocacy group.  CCANA – LNC provides free information, resources and legal representation for accredited newspapers and citizens.  We provide FOIA assistance and pro-bono legal representation on an independent case basis. Our group works closely with Cook County officials and Illinois legislators to represent citizens and accredited newspapers in Cook County, Chicago and Illinois.  To contact us call: (708)344-5975.

Remember, Public Notice is to prevent official actions from happening in secret.  Public notice is your right to know!

 

 

 

 

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