There is a move among city, county, and public school governmental bodies in Minnesota to discontinue running legal advertisements in newspapers and on newspaper websites, and instead post them to their own websites. On the face of it, this proposal sounds reasonable, and we always applaud money-saving measures.
However, as you may read on page one of today’s Post, it is not the nature of some governmental bodies and bureaucrats to be open and transparent with the public about what is essentially the people’s business — not to mention that the public pays the salaries of those bureaucrats.
Yes, these government agencies have websites. In order to access those sites, you must first have a computer, which most, but not all, people do. Then, you must have reliable Internet connectivity, which is not so reliable in many rural areas. And lastly, you must be comfortable navigating complicated websites, which many taxpayers are not.
Governmental bodies are mandated by the legislature to run public legal notices not only to ensure transparency, but to also make sure that the government bidding process is open to all. In fact, in one of its first official acts in 1789, the our founding fathers ordered the publication, in at least three public newspapers, of every bill, order, resolution, and congressional vote — because they didn’t entirely trust the new government that they were forming, and they didn’t want to leave decisions regarding notices of government action to the discretion of government agencies.
Each year, cities, counties, and school districts around Winona send out requests for bids on publication of their legal notices to all of the eligible newspapers that are circulated in their area of service. The newspapers enter a sealed bid, and the lowest bid is chosen. Putting their legal notices out on competitive bid should, and does, save the government money. The Winona Post always enters a sealed bid for local government legals, but is perennially underbid, keeping the cost low to the city, county and school district. This paper does run legals from various law firms in the area, and smaller governments, that want to get their message out to a wider audience than is possible with other publications.
The result of newspapers running government legals is that if the citizenry would like to, or needs to, find these legal notices, they are available there in black and white, or, as mandated, on the newspaper website. The Minnesota Senate asked the public, in a recent state fair poll, to identify its primary source for government or political information. The first choice, by an overwhelming majority, was community newspapers. Newspapers have a significantly higher number of visits to their websites than do government agencies. If notices appeared only on government-run websites, they would, in effect, disappear from the mainstream of community information, making it significantly less likely that they would be seen.
It’s up to us, the people. Do we want our local government bodies to have more control over how and when they reveal our business to us? Do we want it to be more difficult for citizens, particularly the elderly and those in rural areas, to find legal news? I think that the effort by government offices to post legals only on their websites defeats the ongoing efforts of the news media — and the people — to encourage our governments to be more transparent. The majority seems to agree with me. In a 2013 Scarborough readership study, 78% of Minnesotans polled said they believe it is an important requirement to keep citizens informed by publishing public notices in newspapers.