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Local governments are taking on an adversary they often try to avoid in this year's legislative session: the state's newspapers.
Cities and counties are trying to fight what they see as mandatory and costly advertising in local papers — public notices including meeting minutes or summaries as well as financial and other statements — arguing it should be enough to simply post such information on their own websites. The newspapers claim the battle is about whether governments can be trusted to properly and fairly disseminate information to the public and how many people will see it.
A state Senate committee heard testimony Wednesday about a bill to make the switch.
Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, its chief author, said governments would not be mandated to make that switch but would have the option. Governments publishing exclusively on their websites would also have to make print copies available at their offices, in public libraries and by mail upon request.
"There's less costly ways to communicate with our residents than essentially buying ad space," Pederson said in an interview.
Associations representing Minnesota cities, counties, townships and school boards are pushing for the change, arguing that governments can publish the notices online for less money and citizens are increasingly turning to government websites for information anyway.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association argues, among other things, that the long tradition of notices in newspapers — and now also on newspaper websites — ensures that many more people will see them, that they will be placed on time and that they won't be manipulated after being posted.
The money spent on notices varies widely across the state.
The city of Minneapolis spends, on average, about $130,000 a year to publish notices, 78 percent of them in the Finance & Commerce newspaper but also in the Star Tribune, city officials said.
Hennepin County spends about $125,000 a year to publish notices in those two newspapers, said Beau Berentson, policy analyst at the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Blue Earth County, which passed a resolution in mid-February supporting the change, has recently spent between $8,800 and $9,800 a year on notices. There, the Maple River Messenger, with a circulation of just over 1,000, won bids to publish some notices.
When the notices go in small papers, "the majority of the people in the county don't ever read those papers," Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said. Other Blue Earth notices were published in the Mankato Free Press, which reaches about 60,000 in print daily and is visited by about 70,000 people online a week, according to the newspaper.
While public notice publishing costs are typically a very small percentage of a government's overall budget, officials testified that the money does matter.
Responding to a question, Barbara Olson, school community relations director at Osseo area schools, testified that the district budget is more than $230 million and $6,000 is spent per year on publishing notices.
"It's a small amount in the big scheme of things, but we could use $6,000 to provide books for an entire year for one of our junior highs," she said.
In many rural counties, the cost per capita for newspaper publishing is much higher than in more populated counties, Berentson said.
More than 40 counties have passed resolutions supporting the change, Berentson said.
A Free Press editorial criticized part of Blue Earth's resolution that counties should decide 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 editorial said.
In Willmar, a West Central Tribune editorial cited a 2013 study that found 78 percent of Minnesotans believe it's important to publish public notices in newspapers.
Government boards do not have to choose the lowest bidder for public notices and can instead choose larger-circulation papers, said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Some government websites also have disclaimers about the reliability of the information on them, he pointed out.
Anfinson testified Wednesday that some public bodies already have the option of mailing meeting minutes to those who request them instead of publishing them. Governments can also recoup expenses for publishing long lists of delinquent taxes through small fees added to those taxes, he said. Crow Wing County recovered all of its publishing costs that way, he said.
The association argues that many low-income and senior citizens don't have easy access to the Internet or prefer not to use it, and public notices should appear in places the public is most likely to see them.
Advocates of the bill pointed out that newspaper subscriptions cost money, too.
Many government websites get far fewer visitors and page views than local newspaper websites, the newspaper association found:
In Olmsted County, for instance, the Rochester Post-Bulletin had 144,865 unique visitors in January, while the Olmsted County government's site had 15,087 and the city of Rochester's site had 21,956. The figures don't break down who is actually looking at notices on the websites.
At the Senate hearing, Chris Schultz, owner of Herald Journal Publishing in Winsted, Minn., argued that there's no evidence governments will save money if they need to increase staff time for putting notices on their websites and "making that site a place that people are likely to go, likely to see a public notice."
Another man who said he was a new school board member in a small town testified that the newspaper has served as the best record keeper of what the board has done over the years.
A few government boards have taken stands against the change, including Yellow Medicine County, which spends about $20,000 a year on publishing notices, administrators there said.
The Star Tribune prints about 500 public notices a year, most of which come from private businesses, said Steve Yaeger, vice president of marketing and public relations. The newspaper has not taken an editorial stance on the bill.
Ann Lindstrom, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, said her organization has been pushing for the change for more than a decade. Processes can be set up to ensure that governments comply with publishing rules, she said. Residents will want more information online in the future, and the bill would free up money for governments to invest more in their own electronic communications, she said.
"We definitely feel like the time has come now."