Column: Open access to public notices safe for now

You may not know or care much about public notices, but you should. They are the legally required notices in newspapers and websites that identify government budget proposals, financial statements, minutes of meetings of the governing body, new ordinances and public hearing notices, some of which may result in a tax assessment to the benefiting properties.

Keith Anderson
Keith Anderson

These certainly are not sexy topics, but they do have an impact on everyday life in our communities.

In the last week of February, your rights to open and transparent access to those notices received a vote of confidence from the very state senators that have been elected to protect your freedoms and keep government accountable to the people.

For the past few years, there has been a somewhat quiet movement initiated that, if approved, would deliver a serious blow to your expectation that government be transparent and accountable with the actions and decisions that affect us all. That movement would have no longer required local government entities to publish their legal public notices in newspapers and on newspaper websites. A resolution that was presented to numerous local government bodies across the state this year would have removed that requirement and stipulated that they need only place those legal notices on their government-controlled websites.

On the surface this may sound like a reasonable expectation, but like all issues that involve government transparency, it creates temptations to suppress or control the flow of information and how it gets shared with the public. The checks and balances that exist today would be replaced by a blind “trust” that government will simply “do the right thing” and provide the information on its own websites, in a timely manner, in places the public can easily find that information.

The Senate committee that heard testimony on this issue in the first week of the 2014 legislative session put the proposed bill aside for now, underscoring a victory for free and open access to government data that has a needed checks-and-balances system in place.

The organizations that support this resolution, the League of Minnesota Cities, the Minnesota School Boards Association, Minnesota Association of Townships and the Association of Minnesota Counties, suggested the motive behind the proposal was cost-savings. While it is true that newspapers are paid for placement of those public notices based on the amount of space that they require, there is clearly a cost to publish a printed newspaper. Meanwhile, the cost for publication in a newspaper to a county, city, school or township barely registers as a blip compared to their overall annual budgets. Newspapers do not charge for placing them on websites.

According to Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, who specializes in First Amendment law, credible data has been collected for more than a decade on how people actually use websites. And that data shows that by a huge margin, many more people will see public notices that are published in newspapers (and posted on the newspaper websites as required by law) than would ever see them on government websites.

“That’s really no surprise, since the whole purpose of community newspapers is to present information in a way that will attract readers and viewers — they’re experts on that. Government officials aren’t, and their websites often reflect that,” he said.

And when it comes to print newspapers, once a public notice has been published, it cannot be changed, manipulated or hidden. It is a permanent record.

Although it’s possible the issue could resurface at a later time, it appears at this point that the Senate committee that heard initial testimony understands the importance of government transparency and the delicate trust that must be nurtured between government and citizens.

This was the correct move by the committee, and we applaud them for their actions thus far.

The public notices you see in newspapers are important. They represent a portion of the freedoms that were achieved for us by our forefathers, our grandparents and our parents. None of us should be comfortable with seeing any of those freedoms taken away.

Freedoms are not easily achieved, but they are easily erased if nobody cares or pays attention.

Keith Anderson is the director of news for ECM Publishers. He can be reached at [email protected].