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Time may be right to move public notices to the Web

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 20, 2011 - 11:01 PM

The Hennepin County Board was about to spend $146,000 to publish another 16 months of public notices in the business paper Finance & Commerce. Commissioner Randy Johnson was not happy.

"Mr. Johnson," he asked County Administrator Richard Johnson, already knowing the answer but wanting to make sure everyone heard it, "what do we get for $146,000?"

The reply: We get published legal notices as required by state law.

"Is there any other medium that meets the state-imposed, state-mandated requirement that would cost less?" Commissioner Johnson asked.

No -- even though Hennepin County already posts most of the information on its website.

Left without a choice, commissioners grudgingly approved the money. But not before telling their state lobbyist to seek repeal of the mandate.

It's one that costs Minnesota's counties, cities and school districts already struggling with tight budgets. The law requires notices in newspapers of board proceedings, tax levies, forfeited properties, financial statements and project bids.

Against the rising tide of Internet use, many see dumping newspaper notices as a cost saver whose time has come.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, has introduced a bill to let local governments skip the papers and publish such notices only on their websites. Drazkowski, who is leading a GOP charge against several state mandates, said using websites will help jurisdictions make up for cuts in state aid.

"This is a way to allow local governments the freedom and flexibility to do the best job they can," he said.

The bill has six sponsors, including Bloomington DFLer Ann Lenczewski. It has not been introduced in the Senate.

The main opponent is the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which represents 350 newspapers (including the Star Tribune) that see the notices as an important public service and reliable moneymaker.

The trade group says local government shouldn't be the sole source of information about itself, and that citizens still mostly turn to newspapers or newspaper websites for public news and information.

"Most news organizations have had to cut back, but government isn't getting any smaller," said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the newspaper association. "Public notices is a way of requiring government to tell its people what it's doing and what it's done.

Anfinson said he didn't think newspapers would fold if revenue from the notices disappeared. But a law change could mean papers would have to cut reporters, he said.

Moving to the Web

Publishing notices in newspapers dates to colonial times. But a recent study by the Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California said 40 states entertained proposals to transfer notices to the Web.

The report said the Obama administration has moved federal property forfeiture notices online, saving $6.7 million over five years.

Last month, the Willmar City Council asked its staff to seek alternatives to notices in the newspaper, even though that would be illegal under Minnesota law.

The closest the state comes to that right now is letting local governments use their own websites to advertise for transportation contractors.

Opponents of the state mandate, who have been trying to drop it for years, say this time may be different. The cost is one big reason but it's not the only one, said Joe Mathews, a policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties.

"We want to make sure the information gets out to where the public will find it, and do it in the most efficient way possible," he said.

Drazkowski said the bill makes allowances for those who eschew the Internet. Governments would have to tell people -- in the newspaper -- that notices can be found on their websites. They would be required to maintain a published archive of notices and make them available.

The bill also would require that printed copies of online notices be maintained at City Hall and the local library and be mailed to anyone who asks.

"The need to keep the public apprised of the activity of government ... shouldn't be compromised," Drazkowski said.

Anfinson said the bill would make access to notices unlikely and inconvenient. People shouldn't have to go to the library or government offices to look them up. Many seniors aren't adept online, he said.

"We got a letter last year from the AARP strongly opposing transfer of public notices to the Internet because a significant portion of their members don't use it," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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