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Editorial: Retain public notice requirement

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - 12:43pm

In the midst of cost-cutting due to a massive state budget shortfall, the legislature's Joint Finance Committee adopted elimination of the legal requirement for impartial, third-party publication of official state government notices.

The thinking was to let the government itself do it in the interest of a perceived savings (although it could actually cost as much or more to coordinate the posting and archiving of these notices), rather than designate newspapers to publish them. But it's a mistake to allow state government to be its own watchdog.

According to Peter D. Fox, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the requirement has been a guarantee to citizens that what by law must be done is actually carried out. Public notices are an integral part of America's participatory democracy because they inform: where money is spent, policy is made and futures charted. They fall into three main categories: citizen participation (such as public hearings), business and commerce (like bid invitations or liquor license applications) and court-related (informing creditors, for example).

The notices have been required publications in newspapers certified by the Department of Administration under the state law it administers, sections of which apply to counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts. Newspapers were 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 committee's move to eliminate this requirement assumes the public would willingly visit state agencies' computer internet web sites on their own time, as often as necessary. But citizens shouldn't have to discover government activities by "surfing" a multitude of websites. It's the responsibility of government to "communicate out" to the public.

Newspaper publication continues to be the best means of archiving public notices in a secure and publicly available form. A notice published in a general circulation newspaper can be accessed by all segments of society (at a lower cost for a subscription than that associated with a computer and the internet), and while no one medium has ever reached 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, newspapers come closest to that mark.

Moreover, newspaper publication insures notices are disseminated to the public at the proper times and in proper sequence. Verifiability is essential to these notices because it provides incontrovertible proof a notice was published in accordance with the law, yet there's no way to secure that verification on a government web site.

Public notices are so interwoven into the fabric of Americans' lives they are often taken for granted--in short order, they'd become conspicuous by their absence, should ideas such as the committee's elimination move take root. Let's hope what was a hasty decision (taken in four minutes with neither analysis or financial data to support it, Fox says) doesn't become reality.