There 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.
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.
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
- Strib: Time may be right to move public notices to the Web
- MinnPost: Time for Minnesota governments to stop paid public-notice ads in newspapers?
- MinnPost: Legislative leaders on repealing newspaper public-notice mandates: two maybe, two no
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
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.