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Editorial - Public notices belong in newspapers

In an effort to cut costs, some school boards, county boards and city councils in Minnesota are pressuring legislators to allow them to put public notices on their own websites instead of paying to print them in a newspaper.

This would be a huge disservice to the public.

Public notices, which include delinquent tax lists, public hearings, assessment notices, and other legally required announcements, should remain in newspapers. The Minnesota Newspaper Association lists these convincing reasons why:

• Newspapers and newspaper websites are where the public goes to get news about their government - not government websites. (The Echo Press website, for example, received more than 145,000 visits in February alone, according to Google Analytics.)

• Advocates for taking public notices out of newspapers claim that it will save money but local government has never substantiated this claim. The money spent on putting public notices in papers is statistically insignificant compared to the local government's budget. And the expenses of designing, operating, properly maintaining, and updating a website are significant, if done right. These costs are now covered by newspapers.

• Newspapers agree that public notices should be on the Internet. That's why newspapers sponsored legislation that passed into law seven years ago to mandate that all newspapers must put them on their website at no additional cost, in addition to placing them in their print editions.

• Many citizens do not have ready access to the Internet, or prefer not to use it often. AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, representing more than 700,000 Minnesotans 50 and older, has a position opposing removal of public notices from newspapers.

• Do we really want government to have sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its own notices? Newspaper publication prevents government from deciding when and how the notice is published, and whether it is changed after it is published. Public notices in newspapers are also a critical check and balance on potential government errors.

• Public notices in newspapers are the permanent records of what a public body does as well as the notification of what it intends to do. There is no archival history to government websites as there is with newspapers. Years from now, any citizen could go to a newspaper and read what the government did.

• Newspaper publication of government's notices have been the law since our country was founded. In one of its first official acts in 1789, the federal government ordered the publication in at least three public newspapers of every bill, order, resolution, and vote because they didn't entirely trust the new government that they were forming, and they didn't want to leave notices up to government alone.

• The Minnesota Senate asked the public, in the state fair poll in 2009, what their primary source for acquiring government or political information was. Newspapers were overwhelmingly the first choice. A government operated website would remove public notice from the mainstream of community information and would make it less likely that they would be seen.

• It is counterproductive to transfer responsibilities from the private sector to the public sector, and give local government more duties when they will undoubtedly be operating with fewer employees in the future. Additionally, newspapers are businesses that pay taxes and provide thousands of private sector jobs.

• Local governments know that newspapers get the message out best. When they want to publicize issues of concern, they don't post it on their website; they go to the media.

• The reliability of newspaper publication is so well established that courts accept the published contents as evidence in court, and require it for many court actions. In previous years, the state auditor and attorney general have expressed reservations about the loss of paper notices that courts want as independent verification.

• Web only access to public notices raises issues of citizen privacy since government can track the use of government websites.

• The more the public knows about what elected officials do, the better off we all are. And the more open and accessible government information is, the less room there will be for speculation and rumor.