Removing public notices is still lousy policy

AS WE WRAP UP another legislative session in Madison, there’s another push to bring more secrecy to your government.

The wrong-headed notion of taking public notices out of newspapers — where citizens have found everything from city council and school board minutes to other government proceedings for more than a century — and putting them instead on government websites (at least, that’s the promise) was a bad idea the last few times legislators brought it up.

It’s still a bad idea.

We’ve written this editorial and testified against such legislation several times, so pardon us if you’ve heard these words.

But, this is an issue of democracy, so they bear repeating.

The looming legislation — Assembly Bill 70 — is much the same as previous attempts. In that spirit, here’s what we wrote 370 days ago in this space:

For more than two centuries, governments in this country have paid newspapers to publish public notices about the actions of government.

Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no check-and-balance to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post.

Besides, relatively few people actually use government websites compared to newspaper websites — and relying exclusively on individual government websites does nothing for people who don’t use computers.

Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.

For those who choose not to use computers, it remains the best source.

For those who use computers, there’s already an invaluable resource at your fingertips.

Since 2005, newspapers in Wisconsin have been digitally archiving every public notice published in every newspaper in our state every day. Today, there is a database with more than a decade worth of information posted on a website that’s free to use, www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org .

Wisconsin newspapers collect that information daily, archive and maintain it free of charge. That database is very user-friendly — searchable by city, county, newspaper, ZIP code and key word.

This service is provided to citizens, courts and local government free of charge because newspapers in Wisconsin have made a substantial investment to provide and maintain the service for the sake of transparency and public trust.

Businesses throughout the state use www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org to learn about projects they may wish to bid on. Just ask a contractor how efficient it would be to — every day — log onto the website of every local government in Wisconsin. Eliminating the usefulness of that website wouldn’t be good for business in our state.

So, is this a big money-maker for newspapers — and are newspapers gouging government by charging an exorbitant rate for publishing notices?

That rate barely covers the cost of processing and printing the information. Besides, the rate is regulated by the state — the Department of Administration, to be specific. Most states don’t regulate the rate that newspapers can charge for the service.

To give you an idea how regulated the process is in Wisconsin, just look at the portion of the statute that regulates the type used to print notices: “All legal notices shall be in Arial type face. A standard line shall be 6-point leading without spacing between the lines, and 11 picas in length.”

In fact, it was the newspaper industry in Wisconsin that agreed on a standard type face to help the DOA cut down on its administrative workload. The Legislature approved of that streamlining without opposition in 2012.

The process of publishing public notices is more regulated in Wisconsin than in most states. With that said, only one state — Utah — briefly eliminated the requirement of publication, and it was a failure.

It’s also important to note that government isn’t the sole bearer of the cost of publishing legal notices. In many cases, the cost is passed along by the government agency to those who are seeking government action.

Taking public notices of any kind out of newspapers is just another attempt by government officials to curb government transparency in Wisconsin.

And, 370 days later, we strongly believe it’s still a bad idea for democracy. — La Crosse Tribune, Feb. 11


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