Place public notices where most citizens want to see them

Both our nation and state were founded on the principles of self-government, including that the government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

That would suggest that government has an obligation to be as transparent as reasonably possible so that people can make a fair judgment of whether government’s activities are working well or not.

One way that the government tells the public about its activities has been by publishing public notices in newspapers. In Minnesota, almost all of these notices are required by law, enacted by legislators who understood the importance of keeping the public informed. School board minutes, county board minutes, government financial reports, bidding requirements, public hearing notices, etc., are all required by state law.

With the advent of new technology, most newspapers now publish such notices not only in the paper edition, but on their websites as well. In addition, to encourage use, the Minnesota Newspaper Association is now building a website that includes all such public notices published in any of the state’s newspapers.

However, as a cost-cutting move, many local governments are now claiming that it should be sufficient for the government to publish all such notices only on the government’s own websites. The state Senate will be holding a hearing on such a bill, S.F. 1152, in a couple of weeks.

Will this be good for making the public aware of government activities? Not if the results of a recent poll are any indication.

In November and December, 2013, Scarborough, a polling company, surveyed 1,005 Minnesotans, about newspaper readership habits.  Among the questions asked in the survey was: “If public notices were placed on government websites or in newspapers, how often do you think you would refer to them?”

The polling response was clear: People would read them less if they were only posted on government websites, instead of in newspapers. The response:

                Newspaper         Gov’t Website

Usually               14%                               6%
Sometimes       22%                              11%
Rarely                35%                              34%
Never                 28%                              48%

In short, readership would drop by about 20 percent.

Survey respondents were also asked, “Do you believe keeping citizens informed by publishing public notices in the newspaper is an important requirement?” Minnesotans delivered an overwhelming verdict — 78 percent said, “Yes” and only 15 percent said “No.”

How important is it to publish public notices in a timely manner? Is it OK to forego notice of a public hearing on a controversial development, or do we really want to keep such information away from the public’s eyes? Will it lead to better government if the government’s activities are only announced on websites rarely visited by the public? Or would it be better to put them somewhere where the public is likely to see them?

The Scarborough poll asked this question, “Suppose you could get public notices anywhere. Which way would you prefer?” The response was as follows:

Newspaper or its Website   39%
Mail   23%
Social Media  8%
Television  6%
Gov’t Website 6%
Radio 4%

The public prefers to look for public notices where they look for news, and government websites are not viewed by many as news sites.

The printed paper also provides a permanent archive of public notices that cannot be manipulated by anyone after the fact, and those notices are being protected by the watchdogs of our government, newspapers. Electronic versions of any type of files can always be manipulated and removed from a website at anytime, for any reason.

In order for government to function well, citizens need to know about its activities. Shield such information from all but the most determined to uncover it, and the result will inevitably be more corruption, less understanding of government leading to greater frustration among the populace and an undermining in the citizenry’s confidence that the government is working for the common good.

Minnesotans want open and accountable government. To have that, we all need to realize that government has an obligation to inform the public of its activities in timely, easily accessible ways.

We should not be saying to the 20 or 30 percent of the public which still are not on the Internet that keeping them informed does not matter. Nor should we be saying to the remainder that they have to go to websites where few people ever go.

Instead, the government needs to ask itself, how do the people we serve want to receive information about government activities? How can we better serve them and keep them more informed?

We have no issue with adding requirements for disseminating public notices to citizens, but see no public benefit from removing such notices from newspapers and other locations already required by law. Urge your legislator today to oppose S.F. 1152.

An editorial from the ECM Editorial Board. The Dairyland Peach is a member of ECM Publishers, Inc.