The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 14, 2014

Our View: Public access threatened by proposed law

Why it matters: Government wants to limit and restrict information to citizens

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Counties across Minnesota, including Blue Earth County, appear ready to pull the plug on the public having easy access to public business through public notices.

Blue Earth County and other counties around the state have passed resolutions supporting a bill at the Legislature that would allow counties to publish public notices only to their websites and not in newspapers of record or the highly-trafficked websites they operate.

The bill — S.F. 1152 and H.F. 1286 — would allow them to opt out of publishing the notices to places they would reach far more of their constituents than the county websites can reach.

The Association of Minnesota Counties has recommended counties approve resolutions to this effect. Blue Earth County appears to have blindly complied with this request Tuesday when it passed a resolution that states, in part, the government knows best when deciding what citizens should know.

Other counties, including Yellow Medicine, have rejected the proposed resolution.

Citizens should be concerned any time a government body passes a resolution that states the government “should have the authority to determine the best and most efficient method of communicating information to citizens.” Sounds like a resolution you might find in the book “1984” by George Orwell or in the bylaws of the former Soviet Union.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association, of which The Free Press is a member, is fighting the Legislation. A cynic could argue newspapers are trying to protect their business as there is a fee for publishing the public notices. But the essence of the law is more concerning to news organizations than the money.

It effectively restricts the easy access the public has to information.

The resolution passed by Blue Earth County offers a wild claim that “county websites are increasingly the first place citizens look for information about their counties,” and “the ability of county websites to provide citizens with up-to-date, detailed information exceeds that of print media.”

It’s a good thing resolutions don’t have to be passed with evidence for their assertions, because in this case, there is none.

The Free Press reaches about 60,000 people a day with its print edition. We doubt more people are going to the Blue Earth County website.

And newspapers are already required to publish the print edition notices on their websites at no additional cost. The Free Press website alone is visited by about 70,000 people a week.

Counties apparently are backing this legislation because they argue it will save them money and that their “resources are limited.”

We suppose for some counties that may be true, but last year the Legislature added hundreds of millions of dollars of state aid to cities and counties. And the cost of most public notice publishing is a very small part of county budgets. In the real world, there is a cost to informing the public,but that should be any governing body’s first priority.

Proponents of the law don’t appear to have put much thought into the cost of maintaining a website, keeping it secure, and publishing the notices according to the legal requirements. In fact, many public bodies are far behind in publishing information on their websites. One city in Minnesota says it cannot guarantee its website will be working at any given time.

And some cities and counties have a poor record of publishing information already required. A recent in-depth report by the Minnesota Associated Press found that many county and city websites conveniently forgot about a law to publish salaries of the top employees to their websites. Many buried the information deep in their website, making it difficult to find.

Dozens, according to the Associated Press, did not publish it at all.

There is no need to remove requirements for counties or cities to publish public notices in the most easily accessible ways possible. Taxpayers will be cut out of the loop. The proposed law is not a way to save taxpayers money, it’s a way to remove government accountability.