Newspapers provide broadest access to government records

by | Mar 15, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Distributed as a guest editorial by the Minnesota Newspaper Association in observance of Sunshine Week, March 15-21, 2009

A city seeks bids for road maintenance. A township announces its election and annual meeting. A county publishes its annual list of delinquent taxes.

All three items are of public interest, and all are prominently displayed under the “public notices” sections in Minnesota newspapers.

Yet, certain groups are lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to eliminate the requirement for cities, counties and schools to disperse this information in newspapers – an avenue that provides order, accuracy and reliability in the dissemination of information important to citizens’ everyday lives. Reminding citizens and public officials about the public’s right of access to government information is the focus of “Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know,” March 15-21.

Instead, these groups prefer a shotgun approach to notices by allowing political subdivisions to switch most legal publications to alternative media, including the Web and public access television. Many argue that governmental bodies should have the option of posting this information only on government Web sites.

These proposals are not new. But stresses on the state budget are fueling requests from local governments for mandate reform with published notices one of the regular targets.

To be clear, the Minnesota Newspaper Association supports publication of only those notices that are meaningful to the public. In fact, most of the significant changes in those laws enacted during the past 25 years have been initiated by MNA, which, among other things, has led to the removal of dozens of requirements that were out of date or served little purpose.

Certain groups are calling for the public notice requirements to be relaxed on the basis that local government can do just as good a job in spreading the information on their Web sites.

If that’s the case, why the steady flow of press releases to newspapers seeking publicity on a proposed school referendum or a new downtown taxing district or changes in feedlot ordinances? Why are editors regularly lobbied to cover meetings of governmental bodies? Why are some notices published solely at the city’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 local newspaper will be read and seen.

Other reasons are equally compelling to keep notices in newspapers:

  • Printed publications offer immediate and easy proof of publication. The same level of assurance is not available on the Internet.
  • Internet availability and use is growing and widespread in many areas, but more people still have access to newspapers. The cost of purchasing a computer and hooking up to the Web should not be a requirement to read public notices.
  • Public notices in newspapers are easier to track for both government bodies and citizens. They are clearly marked and often located in the same section. Finding notices in newspapers is much easier than surfing the Web sites of a variety of governmental bodies or regularly checking alternative media.

Newspapers provide a one-stop shop for all community news – including public notices. Newspapers are an independent source. Furthermore, state law mandates that newspapers post notices on their Web sites, too.

As an informed citizenry worth the expense? We believe so. We suspect local government officials think so, too, given their repeated requests to get news items published.

Newspapers are being affected by the economy as well, and, as a result, have fewer resources to field all the requests for news coverage forwarded by government. That may be another compelling reason to require public notices of certain information.

The truth is, however, the cost of public notices usually represents minuscule percentages of budgets. In at least one specific instance, government receives an excellent return on its investment. One of the public notices that county government has complained about most often at the Legislature is publication of the delinquent property tax list. In fact, publication frequently results in many individuals paying their taxes to avoid having their names in the paper. Furthermore, state law actually permits the county to recoup all its costs for publication from delinquent taxpayers.

Access to all is especially important in the most basic of public notices – election ballots. Nothing is more important to electing leaders than ballots cast by an informed citizenry. That requirement also could go by the wayside under proposed legislation.

Government operates best when it is accountable to its constituents. Regular publication of legal notices in the local newspaper is one important avenue for keeping local officials connected with residents.