Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Transparency: New Bill Would Promote Easy Digital Access to City Notices

If you are reading this post right now, you're probably doing so using a computer, smart phone, or some other electronic communication device. At the click of a link, it's likely that you're also able to immediately access any one of the 600+ websites hosted by a city government in Minnesota using that same device. Despite this 21st Century convenience, there still exists a state law in Minnesota (established more than 60 years ago) requiring cities to communicate certain information to residents by purchasing printed space, at taxpayer expense, in local newspapers.

That decades-old law requires cities to publish public notices, or legal notices (like meeting minutes, hearing notices, and new ordinances, for example) in a single qualified newspaper that is designated by each city. There is no requirement that the designated paper be the one with the highest circulation in the community, but it must have at least 400 copies regularly delivered to paying subscribers or at least 400 copies regularly distributed for free to local residents. And, if no qualified local paper exists, publication is not required.

SF 1152/HF 1286 is a bipartisan legislative bill that would allow city governments to have the option of posting public notices on municipal websites instead of, or as a supplement to, public notices published in printed newspapers. This bill would not change what notices are to be published or when they are to be published. It would simply change where they need to be published.

The proposed legislation, supported by the League as well as county and school district associations, allows city governments to meet state-mandated publication requirements through less costly electronic means that are more easily accessible to all residents. Those without access to newspapers can receive information by simply looking at a city's website on a computer—at work, home, school, or the public library—or own their own phones, much as they would access information affecting other areas of their lives.

At the same time, SF 1152/HF 1286 does not prohibit cities from continuing to publish notices in the local newspaper if that remains the preferred option. In some communities, local newspapers remain the best method of reaching a majority of residents—particularly those communities where the newspapers are free, reliable, and have wide distribution. But in other communities there are multiple newspapers published, and choosing one means excluding large segments of readers that may not subscribe to the designated paper. And, in some communities, there may be no local newspaper published at all.

Where would you look?
While true that public notices continue to serve as a major source of revenue for publishers, it's also true that fewer and fewer people are subscribing to, or reading, hard-copy newspapers in this day and age. The next time you're at a coffee shop or enjoying breakfast at a local cafe, do a quick headcount and see for yourself how many customers are looking at morning newspapers. Or, simply ask someone where they would look to find information about city council notices and agendas—the local paper that is delivered to less than half of city households, or the city's website. Would they travel to a newstand to purchase a paper, or would they log on to get city information the same way they look at classifieds on Craigslist, theatre showtimes, or up-to-the-minute weather forecasts?

Website publication makes good fiscal and practical sense. It is expected that SF 1152/HF 1286 will be heard in the Minnesota Senate's State and Local Government Committee soon after the State Legislative session begins.

4 comments:

  1. That's ridiculous! Newspapers and their websites get much more readership than any government site ever will. They (LMC) are just trying to be less accountable by keeping notices AWAY from the public. People won't go to government websites looking for notices. They need to be published in a neutral-party media rather than allowing government to police itself regarding how, when, and where it's published. In your coffee shop example, nobody is looking at a city website! - Dale, Mayer MN

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  2. Why doesn't the revised statute require that local governments set up email lists for anyone who wants to receive all public notices? Why would people have to go look for them when the technology is easily there to push the information to the residents?

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  3. The legislation should include required metrics that if notifications Web pages do not receive 400 unique hits, then parallel listings in newspapers must resume for six months beginning with the next notice to be published. Audit reports to be published as a newspaper listing quarterly.

    That would take care of a local government unit creating a Crap website to evade responsibility. Google analytics should handle the reporting.

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  4. I watched the hearing and found it interesting that most local governments who have a choice as to where to publish DO NOT select the LOWEST price. That is ridiculous. Why is LMC pushing this as a money saver when their own members could care less about saving money. Who is really behind this? While there are some quality government websites out there, most of them are crap.

    Also funny how LMC is claiming that this bill will allow cities to "supplement" newspaper publishing. What prevents cities from posting this stuff on their websites now?

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