The Washington County Board of Commissioners are throwing their support behind legislation that would allow local government to use their own website to publish official legal notices instead of paying to publish them in an “official newspaper of record.”
Currently, state law—Minnesota Statutes Chapter 331A—requires a county board to designate an official newspaper at the beginning of each year for the publication of the summary of official proceedings and publications of legal notices, delinquent tax lists, and financial statements.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association has been a longtime advocate of the statute requiring governmental entities to publish public notices in the newspapers of record. Just this week, ECM’s Editorial Board wrote a pointed piece published in the Gazette opposing the proposed legislation.
But Washington County staff estimates they would save at least $16,000 per year if legals were allowed to be posted on the county’s website in lieu of a community newspaper.
The Association of Minnesota Counties, in collaboration with the League of Minnesota Cities, have prepared legislation that would allow a local government to use its official website to publish the public notices. The new bills—House File 1286/Senate File 1152—were introduced in 2013 and will likely be considered this legislative session.
The city of Stillwater last month named the Stillwater Gazette the “newspaper of record,” and entered into a contract paying ECM more than $3.50 per column inch to publish legals.
The county’s 2014 Legislative Agenda includes a call for local taxpayer protection “through the identification of financial mandates that can be removed and the elimination of burdensome rules or regulations that increase county costs and therefore the taxes that are paid by county property owners,” an action item on Tuesday’s Board agenda reads (on page 6).
“Washington County is committed to communicating with and providing information to all of our residents, businesses, clients, customers and potential vendors in the most effective manner possible,” the action item states.“More and more residents and vendors are relying on the county’s website for information, and the number of people who rely on community newspapers for county information is declining.”
Allowing the county to publish official notices on its own website would “eliminate the time and costly burden of the current publication requirements,” the staff recommendation reads.
ECM’s editorial—citing a survey conducted for the Minnesota Newspaper Association—claims less people would read public notices if they were only posted on government websites.
The editorial, in part, reads:
“How important is it to publish public notices in a timely manner? Is it OK to forego notice of a public hearing on a controversial development, or do we really want to keep such information away from the public’s eyes? Will it lead to better government if the government’s activities are only announced on websites rarely visited by the public? Or would it be better to put them somewhere where the public is likely to see them?
“The public prefers to look for public notices where they look for news, and government websites are not viewed by many as news sites.”
The ECM Board argues that printed paper provide a permanent archive that can’t be manipulated, and that those notices are “being protected by the watchdogs of our government, newspapers.”
The editorial goes on to say that electronic files, however, can be “manipulated and removed from a website at anytime, for any reason.”
“In order for government to function well, citizens need to know about its activities,” the ECM Board writes. “Shield such information from all but the most determined to uncover it, and the result will inevitably be more corruption, less understanding of government, leading to greater frustration among the populace and an undermining of the citizenry’s confidence that the government is working for the common good.
“We should not be saying to the 20 or 30 percent of the public which still are not on the Internet that keeping them informed does not matter. Nor should we be saying to the remainder that they have to go to websites where few people ever go.”
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