Public notices belong where easiest to locate and trust

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

An expert is warning that proposed changes in the state’s public notice law come with perils to open government.

At issue is a push by municipal governments for an option to only place public notices on the web. Currently the public notices are published in newspapers, and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association also maintains a web site for all public notices.

Avoiding newspaper publication is touted as saving government money. A Legislative Council is studying the issue and its recommendations will go to the next Legislature.

Mark W.C. Stodder of Shorewood, a committee member, says that any change must result in improved access and delivery of government activity to the public.

Stodder, a public member of the committee, is president of Xcential Legislative Technologies and a former Wisconsin newspaper publisher. He served as president of the Public Notice Resource Center from 2005 to 2012. That is a national nonprofit foundation which examines and tracks the development of public notice law throughout the country.

He recommends four elements to be considered, and they favor continued newspaper publication of public notices. Item one is that the public notice be published by an independent body.

“Unfortunately, government cannot always be depended upon to provide transparency into its operation,” he wrote. Wisconsin has both a tradition of open government but “it also has many examples of public officials choosing to reduce visibility into their plans and activities.’’

Stodder cites last year’s efforts by legislative leaders to weaken the state’s open records law. Letting governmental units avoid newspaper publications, could create less visibility, he said

“In Wisconsin local community newspapers provide that ‘watchdog’ function — both in print and via their mobile platforms and a statewide public notice website,” he wrote.

Other issues in the four to be considered are whether public notices are archivable, accessible and verifiable, he said.

The public and the source of the public notice must be able to verify the notice that was published was not changed once it was published.

“Today, the means of verifying that content on a website has not been electronically altered — hacked in some way — remain sketchy, said Stodder.

“Technology to do so continues to evolve and remains highly complex and costly,” he added.

The federal government has been developing a system to verify online documents “but that system is expensive and not 100 percent accurate and likely well beyond the means of a local Wisconsin government or web-only provider.”

“Today the only fully verifiable notice is in a local newspaper,” he said, citing the statutorily required publisher affidavit.

“The committee would be failing in its duty if we make it harder for citizens to become aware of the activities of their government,” he wrote in a letter to the committee.

Most computer users would also concede that finding and reading a public notice is easier in the community newspaper than in the flood of available web information.

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