In 1789, the Acts of the First Session of the U.S. Congress required all bills orders, resolutions and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers. The purpose of public notice is to display information in places where the public is likely to see it or “take notice.”
Transparency is crucial for our school boards, city and township councils and county boards. In the past 50-plus years our family has owned and operated local papers serving Ramsey, Washington and Anoka counties, our reporters have written tens of thousands of stories people rely on and take notice.
Community newspapers have held public schools and local governments accountable for more than 200 years. This does not mean elected officials are up to no good. The majority are in it for the right reasons. They work hard to serve our communities and they are transparent with their decision-making, but there still needs to be an element of accountability.
Cities and schools are often the largest employers and operate huge taxpayer budgets. Elected board members and council members have a lot of control. There are times they need to answer questions from a journalist about various issues. They also need to know their local paper is watching. Members of the public, most who can’t possibly attend all local government meetings, rely on the newspaper to watch and ask questions. The public can also ask questions, debate issues, and promote dialogue about important local topics through letters to the editor.
Each year people question why the newspaper should have the responsibility of publishing legal notices. It’s the law for local governments and schools to notify the public. Putting information on the internet is not a notification, because the internet is intent driven. If you don’t know the city is going to buy land, widen or open a road, change a law or take your land, then you don’t have a reason to search the internet. We recently reported two members of the White Bear Lake City Council would like to eliminate the checks and balances provided by public notices. I suppose the result of no public notices is it would be easier for local officials to pass new ordinances or motions with little objection from the public, because the public wouldn’t know.
In the state of Minnesota, newspapers are required to bid legal notices. The public notice rates are low and a small part of the revenue of our newspaper. Public notices are a very small budget item for local governments, as well. Our readers need to know removing public notices from the newspaper, which some council members are advocating for, would not provide any significant savings but would allow city hall to operate without checks and balances and public transparency. Additionally, cities covered by a legal newspaper typically have better bond ratings – or borrowing costs – better than those without a partner holding them accountable.
Allowing a city to produce its own public notices and put them up on its website, as some are advocating, is like the old adage of “the fox guarding the hen house.”
We all know the internet is not a safe and stable place for legal notices. We’ve all experienced a website 404 error or clicked on a link or agenda only to find a broken link. Or, even worse, when a city official changed the information online without telling anyone.
Additionally, when a public meeting is broadcast live via a cable station or online, those watching may not get the full scope of the meeting. Often conversations happen before and after the meetings, which can violate open meeting laws. All of our staff have witnessed firsthand violations of open meeting laws, and in some cases have called out groups and even taken them to court.
In many meetings, journalists are often the only consistent outside person there. If you eliminate the requirement for public notices you eliminate the checks and balances our Founding Fathers knew is needed. Let’s keep encouraging transparency like our Founding Fathers had designed it, and keep public notices public and published in an audited and legal community newspaper.
Carter Johnson is publisher of Press Publications.