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Anoka County gets a good deal on some bad news

The Anoka County Record is three pages of regular printer paper without so much as a staple.

The Anoka County Record is three pages of regular printer paper without so much as a staple.

A stack of papers gets dropped off inside the Anoka County government center each week. The pages sit largely unnoticed until someone comes along to throw them in the recycling.

It’s a simple product, the Anoka County Record. Three pages of regular printer paper, each copy neatly folded in half. Frills? The Anoka County Record doesn’t even have staples.

The front page of a recent edition featured a list of people running for city council in various suburbs, and the language of a ballot question to fund a community center in Blaine. But it gets livelier inside.

That’s where readers are treated to the “Anoka County Watchdog,” penned by one Harold Hamilton. His pieces — disclaimed as a “PAID ADVERTISEMENT” — are best described as political jags where he airs his grievances at thousands of words a pop.

In August, Hamilton slammed candidates for the Anoka County Board — one is supported by “uber wealthy DFL donors who have contributed enormous sums to Democrats” — and rants about “Hillary and Slick Willie,” and Gov. Mark “Dayton’s army of accountants, lawyers, and tax advisers.”

Not exactly the news from Lake Woebegon.

The last few pages are even less interesting. By Minnesota law, counties must publish their official legal notices — such as bankruptcies, business filings, and foreclosure announcements. These are the fine print of classifieds, informing Anoka citizens of things like the registration of “FootHealth Pedorthic Services” in Andover.

The Anoka County Record won the contract to handle them, making it the official paper of record for the county. 

The paper is published and largely assembled by one man, John Kysylycyzn. It’s a tough name. He’s done well with it.

Elected mayor of Roseville in 1999 at the tender age of 27, Kysylycyzn (pronounced kiss-e-LISH-en) flamed out after one stormy term in which he tangled with media and fellow officials. He learned a lot about both.

Kysylycyzn became a political consultant and started publishing his glorified pamphlet in 2011.

How’d a guy with twice as many consonants in his surname as years of publishing experience convince Anoka County to trust it with the legal business of its 330,000 constituents?

Simple. First, he sued. Then he made the county an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Kysylycyzn argued that cities and counties are legally obligated to pick the “lowest [cost] responsive, responsible bidder,” a phrase he repeats in conversation like a Zen mantra. Conveniently, the statute makes no mention of quality.

“Some people try to twist the publication of public notices into some sort of public policy issue, a political decision,” Kysylycyzn says. “It’s not. Minnesota law is very clear on this.”

Kysylycyzn sensed weakness in the Anoka County Union-Herald, a small, struggling, traditional suburban paper, and underbid it for the county’s business. He promised to do the county’s paperwork gig for $15,000, about a quarter of what Anoka paid previously.

The County Union, part of the ABC Newspapers chain, has a circulation of about 4,200. Kysylycyzn prints a 10th of that. But his price was persuasive.

“We made the decision in the best interest of taxpayers,” says Rhonda Sivarajah, Anoka County Board chairwoman. “We went with the lowest-cost bidder, the lowest qualified bidder.”

The decision was controversial, but Kysylycyzn writes off his detractors as a “small group of politically opinionated people,” who allege his dealings with the county are the result of professional connections. (He set up Sivarjah’s campaign website in 2012, though she says they don’t have an ongoing business relationship.)

They also say the Record is a right-wing rag.

Their main evidence is Kysylycyzn’s association with Harold Hamilton, the “watchdog” who happens to own the building that houses Kyslycyzn’s office. 

Hamilton, who owns the Micro Control tech company in Minneapolis, is among the most giving Republican donors in Minnesota history: Since just 2015, he and his wife Elanor have donated $58,000 to Republican candidates in-state.

Hamilton’s also generous on the federal level, where he’s given about $160,000 to the party and people like U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline, and Erik Paulsen.

Not all the horses Hamilton backs win. In 2014, he donated the maximum $5,200 to longshot congressional candidate Rhonda Sivarajah, chairwoman of the county board that grave Kysylycyzn its business.

Kysylycyzn rejects the claim his paper’s a Republican outlet. He “regularly” prints pieces by Democrats like Rep. Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights).

Not that she has anything to do with it. Laine says Kysylycyzn just takes emails she sends to constituents and reprints them as op-eds. Legislators get his little newsletter delivered, free and unsolicited, at the Capitol. 

“It’s definitely a person’s blog,” she says, though it’s legally “considered a newspaper.”

Last year, Laine authored a bill that would mandate counties giving their public notice business to the newspaper with the highest circulation within that “political subdivision.” She wrote it in response to Kysylycyzn winning Anoka’s contract.

“He’s getting financing for his private work, via becoming a legal ‘newspaper,’” Laine says. “It’s an interesting way to do it. But it’s not what [the legislature] meant.”

What they meant, when Minnesota passed the law in the 1890s, was to inform the public — for the first time ever — what government was up to.

And so it is in Anoka County. If you want information about your government, and the depths it will sink to to cut its budget, spend the three and a half minutes it takes to breeze through the Anoka County Recorder.

You can subscribe for home delivery for just $100 a year, check or money order. Copies are also available for free at the Anoka County government center and the Minnesota State Capitol, where they keep showing up, even if no one’s asking for them. Check the recycling bin.

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