State should keep public notices in newspapers

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Peter D. Fox
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The legal requirement that state government notify the public of its actions is a guarantee to citizens that what by law must be done actually is carried out. A seemingly minor “hiccup” adopted by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has the potential to be a monumental public-policy change that would affect every one of Wisconsin’s 5.5 million citizens.

To be sure, Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature face a massive budget shortfall. Difficult decisions lie ahead.

The issue of public notice emerged when a Joint Finance member unexpectedly offered a minor cost-reduction amendment while the committee worked on the governor’s budget proposal. Rep. Gary Sherman, D-Port Wing, suggested eliminating the legal requirement for impartial, third-party publication of official state government notices. Let the government itself do it, he offered.

Sherman wants dozens of state agencies to do the job themselves rather than designate a newspaper to publish official state government notices at a cost of about $150,000 annually. In four short minutes—with neither analysis nor financial data supporting it—the motion passed, although it could cost government as much to coordinate the posting and archiving of these notices.

Sherman believes the public willingly would visit state agencies’ Web sites on their own time, as often as necessary, to discover what is happening. Is he correct?

Public notices are an integral part of America’s participatory democracy because they inform: Where money is spent, policy is made and futures charted.

Public notices are required publications in newspapers certified by the Department of Administration. Sections apply to counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts.

But why not post notices on government Web sites and let citizens hunt down the information important to them?

Newspapers are designated because they’re independent of government. The precedent has existed since 1789, when the Acts of the First Session of Congress required publication of bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes in at least three publicly available newspapers. The purpose was to require government to report its actions to its citizens.

Despite the Internet, it’s the responsibility of government to “communicate out” to the public. The public should not have to discover government activities by “surfing the Web.”

Second, newspaper publication remains the best form of archiving public notices in a secure and publicly available form. Newspaper archives of weekly and daily newspapers are frequently consulted by attorneys, private individuals and researchers for verification of published public notices.

Third, a public notice published in a general-circulation newspaper can be accessed by all segments of society. Yes, a subscription has a cost—but it’s less than a computer and Internet access (when available).

Finally, newspaper publication is an insurance policy that notices are disseminated to the public at the proper times and in proper sequence. Verifiability is essential to public notices because it provides incontrovertible proof that the notice was published in accordance with the law.

There’s no way to secure that verification on a government Web site.

Peter D. Fox is executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, P.O. Box 259837, Madison, WI 53725-9837; phone (608) 283-7621.

Last updated: 10:48 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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