The purpose of public notices is simple: to notify and inform local residents about important local issues, especially involving their governmental bodies. That’s why public notices are required by law to be published in official newspapers in Minnesota.
But a proposed bill, Resolution S.F. 1152, would relax the requirement for publication in legal newspapers and allow local governments to post public notices only on their websites. This legislation would significantly reduce the amount of information that would be easily available to residents.
The bill is scheduled to be heard by a Senate committee on Wednesday, Feb. 26, in St. Paul. Counties across the state were asked to vote in support of the bill. Most counties, like Crow Wing, did give their support after some commissioners talked about the bill. But six counties, like Douglas (Alexandria) and St. Louis (Duluth), voted against the legislation after lengthy discussion.
Cass County Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson said that county currently does not have the saturation of Internet connections that some other counties do. Therefore, Cass commissioners like retaining the option to publish legal notices in print and/or on the county website. Even if website publishing did become an option, Cass would continue publishing at least some of its notices in print for now.
The Echo Press, an Alexandria newspaper, recently commended the Douglas County Board for its rejection of the public notice resolution, and in an editorial wrote, “Having a printed permanent record of public notices, maintained by a source independent of government interference, is crucial to ensuring that information is not changed after the fact.”
Over the past decade or more, an enormous amount of evidence has been acquired about how people use the web and what they use it for. This evidence shows that across the state, most people rely mainly on the local newspaper and its website for information about their community and, in particular, for information about their government.
The more than 350 legal newspapers in Minnesota have larger audiences than ever, between print readers and online visitors. The notices they disseminate are not only readily available, but become a permanent, independently maintained record that is also preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Surveys have continually demonstrated that many newspaper readers regularly review published legal notices. And many older residents count on print information since they don’t have computers in their homes. The evidence also shows that public notices that are placed only on government websites are seen by dramatically fewer people than those distributed using newspapers.
Public notices should continue to appear where people expect to find important information on their communities — in newspapers. The combination newspapers offer of print and online coverage makes newspapers the indisputable leader in reaching local audiences with vital information.
In November and December of 2013, a Scarborough polling company surveyed 1,005 Minnesotans about newspaper reading habits. Survey respondents were also asked, “Do you believe keeping citizens informed by publishing public notices in the newspaper is an important requirement?”
Minnesotans delivered an overwhelming verdict – 78 percent said “Yes” and only 15 percent said “No.”
We hope the legislation will not receive support at next week’s Senate committee hearing as newspapers continue as the best option for promoting both transparency in government and communities that are informed about their governmental institutions.