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Editorial: Public notices belong in newspapers

Newspaper publication of government's notices has been the law since our country was founded. A bill has been introduced by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and co-sponsored by Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, that would permit local governments to publish public notices on the Internet, instead of publishing in newspapers.

Public notices are announcements that involve any action using public property or tax dollars, such as upcoming public hearings, bids for government contracts and assessment notices for taxes. This change would include required notices from your city, village, township, school district and county and every other local government. Even your county treasurer would no longer be required to provide financial information in its current form.

Governmental entities are looking for ways to reduce expenses. We applaud them for being creative. However, a closer look exposes the legislation for what it is: a stealthy assault on open government under the guise of saving money.

The intent of current public notice requirements is to make it easy for citizens who are affected to have access to a permanent record of information. Most local newspapers are the primary source of information for citizens of their communities. Clearly, shifting public notices exclusively to the Internet would reduce their availability.

Rather than providing a single, easily accessible source for all public notices, the proposed change would require you to visit each government entity's website. While this may not be a problem for some, it would significantly complicate the process for others. Many people still don't use or don't have access to the Internet, especially the poor, the elderly, minorities and the disabled.

For people that use the Internet, Minnesota newspapers (including this one) already post on their websites all public notices at no additional cost.

One of the bill's most troubling aspects is this: The proposed change would have government serve as its own watchdog. Think about it. Should governments be trusted to post documents on their own websites -- especially those notices they consider potentially embarrassing? Newspapers provide an objective, trusted and reliable source for public notice advertising. We have a long history of holding government accountable.

Some say that we live in a digital world. In large part, that is true. In addition to publishing in print, the West Central Tribune has a website, an electronic edition and a mobile edition. The challenge is to understand which medium is the best for each publication need.

The posting of public notices on thousands of websites, on which content can be changed or removed at any time, does not serve you, the citizens of west central Minnesota. To provide you with a permanent record that is easy to obtain, newspapers are still the best option.

The bill is House File 162 and companion legislation is Senate File 412.