$35,000 and counting: It’s time to stop the outdated taxpayer subsidy to the Northfield News for City and School District public notices

Public-NoticeThere is a Minnesota state statute (Chapter 331A) requiring local units of government (cities, counties, townships, school boards) to publish public notices in newspapers, everything from minutes and agendas to tax levies, financial reports, project bids, forfeited properties, etc.

I blogged about this in early 2011 (Something Democrats and Republicans can agree on: Move public notices to the web) when there was a bill introduced at the legislature to change the law. Short description of the MN House version of the 2011 Bill:

Political subdivisions authorized to publish proceedings, official notices, and summaries on their Web sites in lieu of newspaper publication.

The bill didn’t get very far. See this 2011 MN House Session Daily story: Plan to post public notices online nixed.

I started thinking about this issue again when I saw this article in GovDelivery about the very same issue in the UK: Public notices: the case for radical reform.  So I requested information from the City of Northfield and the Northfield School District to see how much this was costing us taxpayers.

1. City of Northfield

The City of Northfield has a contract with Huckle Media LLC, the publishers of the Northfield News, to spend a minimum of $15,000 this year to publish public notices and other city-related ads. (See page 2 of the Jan. 3, 2012 minutes.)  The 2012 rate for legal ads is $13.35 per column inch.

Thus far in 2012, over $21,000 has been spent. Last year it was over $18,000.

Huckle Media 2012 Contract City of NorthfieldHuckle Media 2012 Check detail City of Northfield
The above is the 2012 documentation: 1) the 2012 contract with Huckle Media; and 2) the 2012 check detail. I have 2011 data as well.

2. Northfield School District 659

The District doesn’t have a contract with Huckle Media like the City, but just pays the legal ad rate of $13.35 per column inch. 

Northfield School District Public Notice Expenses Northfield News 2011 2012
In 2011, the District paid $14,000 to the Nothfield News, nearly all of it for publishing school board minutes. Through Oct. 15 this year, the total is $13,400. See the PDF.

3. Northfield Hospital; Rice County

A good reporter would have sought similar data from both of these bodies. If anyone reading this would like to request the info from them, I’m happy to add it to this blog post.

2011 articles present the arguments, pro and con

See:

The above articles contain many of the arguments, pro and con. 

One big issue is about government transparency, that requiring notices to be printed in a newspaper helps ensure this.  I disagree. Only a very small % of citizens are without internet access these days. (Over 85% of Northfielders had high speed internet access as of 2 years ago.) If local governments are required to post all public notices in public buildings (eg, post offices, libraries, etc) then that’s sufficient.  And the tens of thousands of tax dollars saved can then be put to better use.

A violation of the law?

State statute also stipulates that any paper that charges for subscriptions must put public notices on its website for free. Here’s the language from the Statute, Subd. 5. Posting notices on Web site:

If, in the normal course of its business, a qualified newspaper maintains a Web site, then as a condition of accepting and publishing public notices, the newspaper must agree to post all the notices on its Web site at no additional cost. The notice must remain on the Web site during the notice’s full publication period. Failure to post or maintain a public notice on the newspaper’s Web site does not affect the validity of the public notice.

The legals section page linked from the top nav bar of the Northfield News website is the same legals section used for all of Huckle Media’s newspapers in southern Minnesota. But only notices for the City of Faribault, Faribault Schools, and Rice County are listed there, an apparent violation of the law.

Our new DFL legislators

Kevin-DahleDavid-Bly

I’d like to see our new DFL legislators, Kevin Dahle and David Bly, team up with some of their Republican colleagues and get this antiquated law changed.  In 2011, then DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen and DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk were against changing the law.

Surely the combined efforts of the League of Minnesota Cities, the Minnesota School Boards Association, the Association of Minnesota Counties, and the Minnesota Association of Townships can muster enough influence to challenge the Minnesota Newspapers Association.

It has happened in other states. Follow the Legal Notice.org blog for the latest.

20 comments to  (Including 3 Discussion Threads) $35,000 and counting: It’s time to stop the outdated taxpayer subsidy to the Northfield News for City and School District public notices

  • 1
    Griff Wigley says:

    The City of Northfield has a public notices page but it’s woefully out of date. Its public notices RSS feed is marginally better but still worthless because it can’t be relied on.

    Hopefully the City’s new website, coming some time after the first of the year, will have 1) a section where each public notice get placed, each with a unique URL to make it easy for anyone to link to; and 2) an email list and RSS option that allows people to subscribe to certain types of notices, eg, only council minutes or only public works bid notices.

  • 2
    kiffi summa says:

    Obviously, from my comments here, I am not the biggest fan of the Northfield News; however, I think it would be a big mistake to cease the statutorily required publication of public notices, hearings, new ordinances, etc. in a local newspaper.

    Regardless of how many people have internet, there are many things that many people would rather read in a print rather than an electronic form.
    For instance, extremely long or complicated documents are not as conveniently read when you have to refer back to previous screens;maps, some charts and horizontal formats are nearly impossible in the on-line council packets.

    I personally don’t like to be restricted to electronic formats; maybe it’s an “age” thing, but I don’t find it universally useful.

    35K$$ is not a huge amount of money in the context of a 10M city budget, and it is still required by statute …

  • 3
    Griff Wigley says:

    Kiffi,

    1. Yes, any change in this has to occur at the legislature. The City or the School District can’t do anything other than complain to their respective associations and our legislators.

    2. The $35K is the combined total for the City and the School District thus far this year, not just the City. Yes, that’s a tiny percentage of both bodies’ annual expenditures but then so was the Bridge to Nowhere.

    3. I agree, the City of Northfield’s current handling of the Council packets and other large documents in electronic format is often horrible. This doesn’t have to be and should be vastly improved with the new website and internal system in January. But regardless, the law doesn’t require that the Council publish the packets in the newspaper.

    4. Individual citizens can opt to print out electronic version of public notices if they don’t want read them online or on their computers. Most public bodies are doing the same for their elected officials, ie, no more paper packets. They’re being issued laptops or tablets while in office and if they want to print, they can do so at their own expense.

    5. Under the 2011 Bill, print versions of all public documents would have to be available in all public buildings.

    6. Under the 2011 Bill, individual citizens could opt to have public notices mailed to them. While it’s expensive and time intensive to do that, the assumption was that only a tiny number # of citizens would request that service.

  • 4
    rob hardy says:

    Here’s something that I would like clarified for me. The statute that you cite, Griff, indicates that one of the conditions that must be met by a qualifying newspaper is that

    the publisher of the newspaper furnishes a sworn statement, verified by a recognized independent circulation auditing agency, covering a period of at least one year ending no earlier than 60 days before designation of the newspaper, stating that the newspaper’s circulation reaches not fewer than 75 percent of the households within the political subdivision (331A.04, subdivision 6(2)).

    According to this source, the circulation of the Northfield News is approximately 5,000. The population of Northfield alone (not to mention that of the school district) is over 20,000 (2010 census). That means that the Northfield News is reaching only 25% of the total population. The number of households it reaches, of course, is another matter. In any case, I would like to see a statement of the paper’s circulation from an independent auditor before I vote on designating the Northfield News the official newspaper for the district.

    • 4.1
      rob hardy says:

      I see from Wikipedia that in the 2010 census, Northfield had 6,272 households. If the Northfield News has a circulation of 5,000, then almost 80% of households are getting the paper (if the circulation number of 5,000 is accurate). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Northfield in 2000 had 7,248 “occupied housing units” (I can’t seem to find a straightforward number of “households”). In which case, the Northfield News reaches only about 69% of these “occupied housing units,” which is below the 75% circulation threshold. Again, I would like more clarity on several points: (a) what is the definition of “household,” (b) how many households are there in the district, (c) how many households does the paper reach through paid circulation, and (d) is that circulation 75% or more of the households?

    • 4.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Rob, I’m guessing that because the Northfield Shopper gets distributed to all households in the area (except for a few like ours where we’ve requested it be stopped), their circulation numbers are far higher than their paid subscription numbers and easily meet the state statute requirements.

      I’ve not looked at the ads in the Shopper in years so it would help if someone verified that public notices appear in it.

      • 4.2.1
        rob hardy says:

        Griff: I don’t get the Shopper, either. But I tracked down someone who does. He looked at the current Shopper that he found on his front steps today. No public notices.

      • 4.2.2
        Griff Wigley says:

        Rob, there were no public notices in Wednesday’s edition of the Northfield News, so maybe that’s why. But there are three (two for the school district, one for the city) in Saturday’s edition.

        So it would help to track down the Shopper that was distributed this weekend to see if those three are in it. The City’s public notice is the agenda for next week’s Council meeting so timeliness matters on that one.

  • 5
    kiffi summa says:

    Just anecdotally, I think there are many fewer Shopper subscriptions than NFNews , because many people ask that it not be left … at least I think that’s the case from the number of people who comment about asking it to ‘go away’, and whether they are successful or not in that request.

    *** But here’s my question: even if the NFNew does NOT measure up to the required %age, where would you publish it in a print piece (NOT on-line) that would reach as many people… there is nothing else.

    • 5.1
      rob hardy says:

      Kiffi: The bill in the House had, as Griff says, a provision that copies of notices be sent by mail to those who requested them.

      You insist that online publication is not an option, but I don’t see why not, supplemented by distributing copies by mail on request and in public buildings.

      I know how many unique visitors Northfield.org pulls in in a week. I don’t expect Griff or Corey to share that proprietary information, but I suspect that, between Patch, Northfield.org, LoGroNo, the city and district websites, and hard copies at the public library and city hall and the schools, and mailed copies on request, we could rustle up the equivalent of the News’s circulation.

      • 5.1.1
        Griff Wigley says:

        Rob, I’ve published LoGro’s Google Analytics stats for unique visitors on the advertise page for a couple years and in blog posts since 2008. Anyone who requests it can login to the LoGro Google Analytics account for read-only access.

        We’re currently averaging about 10,000 unique visitors/month. About 55% of our traffic comes from MN. I’ll attach a map that shows where it’s concentrated.

        What does Northfield.org get? I don’t think I’ve seen it published.

      • 5.1.2
        rob hardy says:

        In the past month, Northfield.org had about 8,300 unique visitors (14,000 visits/24,000 pageviews). 62% of our traffic comes from Minnesota. Our map looks almost identical to yours.

        In any case, I got an opinion from the school superintendent, who says the Northfield News does qualify as a “legal newspaper” according to the provisions in the statue (331A.02). The required circulation, according to 331A.02 subd. 1(d) appears to be “at least 400 copies regularly delivered to paying subscribers.”

        The Secretary of State maintains a list of “legal newspapers,” but it can’t get the Excel file to open (can you?). The Northfield News should be on it.

      • 5.1.3
        Griff Wigley says:

        Rob, I can’t open that Excel file either.

      • 5.1.4
        Griff Wigley says:

        Rob, how do you square the language about circulation requirements in 331A.02 REQUIREMENTS FOR A QUALIFIED NEWSPAPER

        at least 400 copies regularly delivered to paying subscribers

        with the language in 331A.04 DESIGNATION OF A NEWSPAPER FOR OFFICIAL PUBLICATIONS

        If the circulation of a newspaper designated under this subdivision falls below 75 percent of the households within the political subdivision at any time within the term of its designation as official newspaper, its qualification to publish public notices for the political subdivision terminates.

      • 5.1.5
        Griff Wigley says:

        Is there a lawyer in the LoGro e-house who can help with this?

      • 5.1.6
        rob hardy says:

        I think, Griff, that because the Northfield News does (at least, I think it does) meet the requirements of the first section you cite (331A.02), and because no other newspaper exists that qualifies under the statute, the second section you cite (331A.04) doesn’t apply. It is definitely a bit confusing (but if you really want to be confused, try understanding 126C.10, the general education funding formula).

  • 6
    Kiffi summa says:

    You well maybe correct, Rob. I had forgotten about the obligation to mail… However, how would that work?

    A public notice is required tobe published a certain number of days before a public hearing … So a person would have to be aware that the issue was coming up to ask for the notice to be mailed.
    I don’t see how it would work except for the city to keep a list of persons permanently requesting a mailed copy for every public notice … Sounds likes lotofbusywork to me.

    • 6.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Kiffi, I think to keep it practical, citizens would sign up with a public body to have certain notifications mailed to them, eg, just the agendas or just the minutes or just the bid notices, etc.

      How much busy work would that be? A mailing database would be simple for managing the info. The labor to print and affix labels and stuff envelopes might be good to contract out rather than having staff do it.

      I bet that the City and the District would be quite willing to experiment for a year.

  • 7
    Griff Wigley says:

    I’ve got a copy of last weekend’s Northfield Shopper and there are no public notices in it.

    So why would they not put them in there and instead fill up the non-ad space with celebrity news, recipes, etc?

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