May: Public notice change should be stopped in its tracks

2009 Columns

Perhaps the Democrats on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee thought this would be a good time to kick newspapers while they’re down. For many legislators, newspapers do tend to be a pain in the butt, after

But really what they did this month, when on a strict 12-4 party-line vote they decided to end a requirement that the state publish new laws and other notices in newspapers, was give the people of Wisconsin a swift kick.

The committee, which is crafting the 2009-11 state budget bill, thought it could save the state money by eliminating the historic legal notices law and ordering that information about everything from Department of
Natural Resources’ impact statements to abandoned property notices be placed on state Web sites only.

In theory, it sounds good, but it’s a terrible idea, one that Rep. Mark Pocan and Sen. Mark Miller, the Dane County Democrats who serve as co-chairs of the finance committee, should have instinctively known.

The committee took roughly four minutes to stick this huge policy change in the state budget, where it shouldn’t be in the first place. There was no notice, no debate and, as a result, just a lot of know-nothingism.

The change was proposed by Rep. Gary Sherman, one of the finance committee’s 16 members, who has concluded that people don’t read newspapers any more, that the “modern world” has “many more people
looking at the Internet.”

Of all people, we at The Capital Times know full well the changing habits of readers. Indeed, many today read their newspapers on the Web instead of in print on paper — we see that every day on our seven-day-a-week Web editions. But they are reading newspaper and other news media Web sites, not sterile Internet sites produced and designed by state bureaucrats who are in the business of making themselves look good. (While writing this column, I went on the Legislature’s Web site to see if I could determine the time of the finance committee’s next meeting. No luck finding out there; I had to pick up the phone and call someone.)

To put it mildly, traffic on government Web sites isn’t anything to write home about. When people do click on them, it is typically for a specific reason — someone needs to find out the schedule for the drivers’ license office, or learn what hunting or fishing licenses are required, or discover the latest on road closings around the state.

People don’t routinely go browsing through official government Web sites, but they still go through print newspapers. While it’s true that newspaper readership isn’t what it once was, print papers still reach more people by far than any other medium. And then there are the thousands who don’t have computers and vow they never will. They’ll have big problems discovering whether the state is holding property that belongs to them or when the DNR makes rule changes that apply to them.

By eliminating the requirement for the state to post public notices, the state would be opening the door to allow local governments to do likewise. Notices in hometown newspapers are often the only place local citizens learn about their governments and what they are doing. Again, citizens aren’t about to routinely peruse the local government Web site. The end result would be a further widening of the distance between the citizens and their government.

Peter Fox, the executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said it best: “Instead of government having the responsibility to push information out to the public, it now becomes the responsibility of the average citizen to take time out of their busy day and go to the government.”

Unless the Joint Committee on Finance reconsiders its ill-advised action on public notices, either the full Assembly or Senate could remove the provision when they vote on the full budget. Unless they do, the already dangerous gap between the citizenry and its government will widen even further.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. Your Right to Knowis distributed monthly by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council,, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government and open records.