October: Keep public notices law intact

2004 Columns

When I was growing up in rural America, my father used to say, “An informed public is better than an uninformed public.”

It’s the same philosophy I try emulate as the publisher of a community newspaper in northwestern Wisconsin. But it’s frustrating to know that some elected officials and government employees don’t feel the same way.

Recently, the League of Municipalities, Wisconsin Alliance of Cities and Wisconsin Town Association have petitioned a state Senate committee to change Wisconsin’s public notice laws. The groups want the Senate Select Committee on State and Local Government Relations to roll back the requirement that local governments publish meeting minutes, ordinances and other information about government business in their local newspapers. Instead, these entities would only have to run an “abstract” version of this information, then provide directions on how to obtain a complete copy. Our newspaper, as well as many Wisconsin newspapers and citizens, believe scaling back public notices in newspapers is a bad idea.

Why? Because not communicating the business of government leads to mistrust – plain and simple.

Our newspaper publishes legal notices for townships, villages, the city of Hayward and Sawyer County. For a modest fee, we schedule the notice, publish it in the newspaper, post it on our newspaper Web site and send an affidavit of publication with a bill for services rendered. It is an efficient and reliable way of doing business. It provides a permanent record for citizens and local authorities.

If legislators think newspapers are making tons of money publishing legal notices, they’re wrong. The money my paper receives for publishing legal notices from local government entities represents less than 2% of its total revenue. For most government agencies, the cost of publishing legal notices is less than 1% of their overall budget.

The heart and soul of the issue is accountability. If the rules regarding public notices were different in each jurisdiction, it would create a confusing and misleading structure for sharing government information and making announcements to the public. The average person is often stumped as to where to find or obtain public records. They often call the newspaper office for information or advice. This is a reflection of the value and trust the public places in newspapers.

Consistent application of the state law is needed so citizens can trust that government information will be readily available, regardless of the government entity. This protects the public’s right to know. If government entities are allowed to scale back requirements of public notices, a Pandora’s box will be opened. I believe it will mark the beginning of the end of Wisconsin’s long tradition of providing convenient public notice regarding the actions of local governments.

In my two years as publisher, I’ve often seen local residents coming to my newspaper’s office to research a city, township, school district or county project that was initiated years ago. Because of public notices, they can easily find the information they are seeking. And any publisher will tell you they hear from readers who follow the weekly public notices section to stay informed about local legislation, development projects and school board decisions.

Other systems provide no assurance of such easy access. It is unclear what provisions will be made for archiving legal notices, or whether this information will still be readily available to the public years down the road.

A printed, third-party published notice in the newspaper is permanent and time-stamped. It has protected our system for centuries against all sorts of mischief. It is the cheapest and most well-respected method of protecting the people’s right to know about what their government is doing. Once a public notice is in the newspaper, it can’t be altered or manipulated. There is a finality in paper and ink.

Which brings us back to the crux of the problem – accountability. Who is going to make sure local governments do not abuse the public’s trust if there is no record outside of government of what they are doing on the public’s dime?

Local newspapers play a major role in informing the public about how government spends the money it raises through taxation. Scaling back public notices in newspapers will only spread a cloak of darkness over government and leave the electorate out in the cold.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Wanda Moeller is publisher of the Sawyer County Record.