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Editorial - Public's right to know takes step backward

Douglas County commissioners made a decision Tuesday that could ultimately topple a domino that crushes the public’s right to know exactly what their locally elected officials are doing.

It voted, 3-2, in favor of a resolution that supports legislation allowing counties to publish public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. Public notices include information the public is entitled to know about – minutes of meetings, upcoming public hearings, bid openings, budget summaries and other legally-required documents.

The commissioners who voted for the measure, which is being pushed hard by the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), tried to argue that the resolution merely gives them the option of putting public notices on their websites and that it doesn’t mean that they’d ever stop putting the information in newspapers.

That’s hogwash. The AMC-written resolution is clear: It supports legislation that “would allow counties to publish certain public notices on their websites instead of, or in addition to, in an official newspaper.”

The bit about “or in addition to” is window dressing – cleverly concocted phrasing by the AMC to dupe commissioners into thinking this would just give them more “options” without fully understanding what this resolution would really do: Give local governments sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its notices on their own websites, without any involvement or oversight from a medium that’s independent of government. That’s a chilling thought.

It makes no sense to seek an “option” you already have. Right now, there is nothing stopping Douglas County from putting public notices on its own website. There is no law against it. No penalties for doing so.

Commissioners Jim Stratton and Charlie Meyer, the two commissioners who voted against the resolution, pointed out this flaw. “We’d be letting St. Paul make a decision on something that…who knows where it will go,” said Stratton. Meyer noted that it makes sense to put public notices in as many places as possible, including the newspaper.

Stratton further pointed out that not everyone has access to computers or would even know enough to search out public notice information on the county’s website. He said one local woman, who doesn’t have access to a computer, told him not to change where the public notices are being published. She said she knows right where she can find them, in the newspaper. She’s not alone.

Unfortunately, commissioners Bev Bales, Jerry Johnson and Dan Olson approved the resolution anyway.

Now the AMC can add Douglas County to its list of counties that it will tout before the Legislature as “firmly supporting” the resolution.

Legislators should not make this same mistake and everyday citizens, not just newspapers, should voice their objection to this wrong-headed resolution as well.

Public notices should be public and they should be noticeable. Cutting the newspaper out of this process does neither.