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Editorial: Minn. should keep public notices in newspapers

Some Minnesota counties and cities are pushing proposed legislation to allow them to quit publishing public notices in local newspapers and post them on their own websites.

This proposed legislation should be rejected. Here is why.

The purpose of public notices is to keep the public informed about government actions in places the public is most likely to see it, so the public can make well-informed decisions and be active participants in our democracy.

In fact, in one of its first official acts in 1789, the federal government ordered the publication of every bill, order, resolution and congressional vote — because they did not want to leave notices of government up to government alone. Apparently, the founding fathers did not trust government.

Why are some public officials so afraid of seeing local government’s public notices in print? That is a good question.

The primary purpose of a public notice has always been to keep the public informed.

Minnesotans believe this as well. In a 2013 Scarborough readership study, 78 percent of Minnesotans polled said they believe it is an important requirement to keep citizens informed by publishing public notices in newspapers.

Many low-income and senior citizens do not have ready access to the Internet. In fact, the American Association of Retired Persons, representing 700,000 members in Minnesota, opposes the removal of public notices from newspapers.

Some local government officials understand the concept of a good public notice policy.

The Yellow Medicine County Board approved a resolution denying endorsement of the proposed legislation to move certain public notices to only local government websites.

“It’s hard enough to get people to come to meetings,” said Commissioner John Berends. “This (proposed legislation) denies them another source of information.”

The board is to be commended for commitment to keeping its citizens informed via public notices in newspapers.

While newspapers generate revenue from public notices, the primary reason newspapers support publication of public notices is for the public good. And newspapers back this commitment to public notices by also publishing them on their websites.

While local governments have long had the right to publish their notices and proceedings on the government websites, few have done so because of the expense. In fact, newspapers have consistently supported legislation requiring that public notices also appear on government websites or in other mediums in addition to newspapers, but local government groups have always opposed such legislation.

Advocates of taking public notices out of newspapers claim it will save money, but they have never substantiated this claim. The expense of designing, operating, maintaining and updating a website is significant. If the cost of publishing public notices on government sites is free, why are not more local governments now publishing public notices on their sites?

Newspapers have long agreed that public notices should be on the Internet. That is why the Minnesota Newspaper Association supported legislation that became law nearly 10 years ago that mandated that all newspapers that print public notices in their print editions must also publish those same notices on their websites at no additional cost to local governments.

In addition, the Minnesota Newspaper Association and its member newspapers this year will implement a central statewide public notice website that will contain all public notices from all 342 newspapers in the state. Minnesota newspapers are again doing this at no cost to local governments and still publish those same notices on their own websites.

Newspapers are private businesses that pay taxes and provide thousands of private sector jobs. Newspapers remain committed to public notices and do a great job at keeping the public informed. It is counterproductive to transfer public notice responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, when the private sector is already doing the job well.

Public notices in newspapers are a permanent record. The state has many rules and regulations on appropriate public notices and newspapers provide proof of local governments meeting those requirements. How can citizens tell if it was published on time and properly on a government website?

Do Minnesotans really want local governments having the sole responsibility and control over dissemination of their own public notices and keeping you informed? We don’t think so.

The Legislature should reject the call from those Minnesota counties and cities that want to limit public notices dissemination and keep their citizens in the dark.

The more open and accessible government information is, the better off every citizen is.