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Echo Press Editorial: County makes right call on public notices

The Douglas County Board made the right decision Tuesday when it voted on a public notice resolution.

Distributed by the Association of Minnesota Counties, the resolution supports legislation that would allow counties to publish items such as public hearings, election notices, minutes of their meetings and other legally required information on their websites instead of in newspapers. Douglas County commissioners voted 3-2 to not support the resolution. After Jerry Johnson made a motion to approve it and Bev Bales seconded it, commissioners Charlie Meyer, Jim Stratton and Dan Olson voted against it.

The resolution contained slippery wording that at first glance seems innocuous. It supports allowing counties to publish “certain public notices on their websites instead of, or in addition to, in an official newspaper.”

Bales and Johnson tried to make the case that the resolution simply provides another option for distributing information and that they would never stop putting notices in the newspaper. While that may be true for Bales and Johnson – they appeared to recognize the importance of reaching as many people as possible through the newspaper – there is no guarantee that future commissioners would see it that way. Under the guise of cost savings, this loophole could be used to shut the public out of information that can be of keen interest to citizens, especially those without Internet access.

Having a printed, permanent record of public notices, maintained by a source independent of government interference, is crucial to ensuring that information is not changed after the fact.

The three commissioners who opposed the resolution made good arguments. Stratton pointed out that the county can put public notices on its website now in addition to the newspaper and didn’t need this resolution coming out of St. Paul. Olson especially opposed a part of the resolution that said using county websites to publish public notices would “eliminate the time and costly burden of publishing in newspapers.” Meyer said the county shouldn’t limit the way it’s distributing information and that public notices shouldn’t be taken out of the newspaper, ever.

More counties should follow Douglas County’s lead and let this resolution die. Citizens should be able to find public notices where they know they will appear week after week, in their hometown newspaper.