Weather Forecast


Public notices in newspapers at foundation of transparent, accountable government

A half-dozen districts already are considering excess levy referendums in 2011. Eighty-one of the state's 338 districts asked voters for additional money last year. It's a good bet that taxpayers first learned of these initiatives - and will follow the arguments for and against their passage - through the local newspaper.

The attention given to school referendums is one of the strongest arguments why public notices should remain in newspapers and on newspaper websites. Local government officials recognize the value of newspapers in delivering important community news.

The financial challenges of state and local governments once again have put the legal notice requirement under scrutiny at the 2011 Legislature. Local governments have good reason to challenge many mandates that drive up expense and hinder their flexibility and ability to deliver cost-effective services.

Public notices, we respectfully submit, do not fall in this category.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association's defense of public notices in newspapers is more than a concern over potential loss of revenue. These notices are integral to open and effective government. That's our message during "Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know," March 13-19.

In simplest terms, citizens are best served by having a "third party" publish government notices, and newspapers are the most reliable venue. We also agree that public notices should be on the Internet. That's why the Minnesota Newspaper Association spearheaded legislation seven years ago that mandates newspapers to post all public notices on their websites at no additional cost.

Groups typically advocate for relaxed public notice requirements on the basis that local government can do just as good a job in spreading the information on their websites.

If that's the case, why the steady flow of press releases to newspapers seeking publicity for a school referendum? Why are editors regularly lobbied to cover government meetings? Why are some notices published solely at the government's discretion and expense? Why does a superintendent ask for a regular column in the newspaper? Why does a mayor ask the newspaper to write an editorial encouraging citizen participation in community visioning meetings, and then follows up with a letter to the editor on the same subject?

The answer is crystal clear. Local government officials know and appreciate that the information in the newspaper and on its website will be read and seen.

Other reasons are equally compelling to keep notices in newspapers:

• Printed publications provide easy proof of publication. That's not as easily tracked on the Internet.

• The public goes to newspapers and newspaper websites - not government websites - to get news about their government. For example, the West Central Tribune in Willmar had 1.2 million visitors in December 2010. The Rochester Post-Bulletin had 1.15 million visitors.

• Internet use is growing, but many citizens still do not have regular access or prefer not to use it on a regular basis.

• Advocates cite the cost of public notices, but the expense is statistically insignificant compared with the local government's budget. Furthermore, governments still would have the cost of having someone design, post and update these notices on their own websites.

• Newspapers are a one-stop shop for all community news - including public notices.

• Is an informed citizenry worth the expense? Newspapers certainly believe so. And we suspect local government officials think so, too, given their repeated requests to publish news items.

The strongest argument, however, for keeping the law may well be in this year's very proposal to remove the requirement. The authors are well aware that many people do not use the Internet, and even fewer regularly scan government websites for public notices. In recognition of that fact, the legislation "mandates" that government would have to tell people - in the newspaper - that public notices can be found on government websites. Governments also would be "mandated" to maintain and make available a published archive of notices.

Government operates best when it is accountable to its constituents. Consistent publication of legal notices in local newspapers and on their websites is one important avenue for keeping local officials connected with citizens.

This guest editorial was provided by the Minnesota Newspaper Association.