Keep public notices where people will see them
Feb. 24, 2014
By Dale Kovar

“Public notices” are a form of advertising.

“Advertising” is intended to be seen by as many people as possible.

That’s why Senate File 1152, which would remove a legal requirement for public notices to be printed in newspapers and allow them on city and county websites instead, is a very bad idea of government taking away more and more of our rights – in this case, your right to know what’s going on.

Where are you likely to see a public notice?

In a publication delivered directly to you, or on a government website you probably have little reason to ever visit?

With this proposal, you are expected to go and search for notices that you don’t even know exist.

Government is encroaching in our lives more and more each year in taking our money, telling us what to think, and reducing its accountability.

Speaking of accountability, we do not let cities and counties audit their own financial records each year, at least not yet.

An independent third party is brought in to review the books and makes a report in a public meeting that things are in order, and if necessary, what changes need to be made.

Dealing with public information instead of dollars, which in many respects is even more valuable, it is crucial to have third-party credibility involved in the process as well. Newspapers have fulfilled this role for decades.

It is never a good time to give government more autonomy by letting it do its own publishing without the built-in supervision of keeping it truly public through a media entity that puts information in front of the local community, without the public having to go seek it out.

Letting the government units manage it themselves leaves the door wide open for a variety of problems.

When – not if, but when – the extremely difficult circumstance arises, it would be way too easy to “hide” a public notice on a website – technically fulfilling publishing requirements, but not in a manner that someone could find it.

Citizen apathy about government is already running rampant.

People have been conditioned not to care, unless it affects them. If it does affect them, well, government is just too big for us to do anything about it anyway. So let’s just pay some more taxes and go on with our lives.

Removing public notices from a neutral institution such as newspapers will drive the apathy to record levels in a short amount of time. That must be the goal: even fewer people paying attention.

Locally, we do not perceive any bad intentions on anyone’s part.

The driving forces in this move are the Association of Minnesota Counties and League of Minnesota Cities.

These are organizations funded largely by memberships of local governments, with money that comes from your tax dollars.

They are using your tax dollars to lobby for law changes to keep public notices AWAY from you by putting them only in much less-viewed places.

Too often, the public notice debate comes across too much like newspapers trying to keep a piece of the financial pie. In reality, while legal publishing does help keep the wheels turning, our role as a watchdog – someone who actually goes to the government meetings to report on them – is what it’s about.

Let’s talk about cost, too.

SF 1152 would create a perceived need for more technology and more staff to make government sites a place where more people are likely to go.

Then, considering that government wages are virtually always significantly higher than comparable jobs in the private sector (with better, more expensive benefits), it cannot be cheaper for government to do its own publishing than simply using the newspapers’ established method of reaching the public.

Next, if it really would reduce cost, do you believe for a minute there would be a proportionate reduction in property taxes we pay? No way.

Any savings that might results will quickly be spent on additional staff time to make the websites “better” to visit.

This is clearly a mission for non-elected government associations trying to use a few examples of where the process can be improved to force their agenda on the entire state – gaining more control and less accountability.

Many state legislators are already concerned that non-elected government agencies have too much power and autonomy with little oversight. This is another such step, a big one.

We have no objection to cities and counties publishing their notices on their websites, as long as they also keep putting them in a place (newspapers and newspaper websites) where people will actually see them.

We also support some additional requirements on newspapers carrying these notices to make sure the public is adequately served.

But it always comes back to accountability.

Letting a government unit publish its own notices is allowing way too much power to be concentrated in one place.

See also: Minnesota Newspaper Association public notice summary

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