Editorial: Public notices are printed publicly for good reasons
Government of, by and for the people requires keeping "the people" informed. This includes timely, vetted notification of the actions that their elected representatives intend to take, the actions they do take, the laws they change and the money they spend in the process.
Every year a few misguided lawmakers seek to end the publishing of government notices in newspapers. Supporters argue that in the digital age, the practice is unnecessary.
Such a measure is again underway in Wisconsin. Assembly Bill 70/Senate Bill 42 would allow allow city councils, village boards, counties, school districts and technical colleges to "satisfy their legal obligation" to publish proceedings of regular and special meetings merely by posting a copy in a public place and a copy on the respective government's website.
The problem with this approach is threefold:
• lack of transparency
• lack of accountability
• lack of legal record
It's all too easy for a government to hide notices on a website. Obstacles—deliberate and accidental—include obscure placement, broken links and no access at all. Just last month, federal websites went dark for a couple of days during the government shutdown.
Given government online control also opens the door to tampering. Ooops, a word was incorrect in a council's adopted resolution; some staff person simply could change it. Yikes, request for bids should have been placed before the close of business yesterday; let's just change the date.
Our local government officials wouldn't do that, you say. When's the last time you noticed a local government's calendar was out of date? Yesterday, last week and last month. It happens regularly.
Timely, accurate publication is part of transparency and accountability.
Assembly Bill 70/Senate Bill 42 has a second, troublesome time element. The legislation reads "the board shall maintain the electronically placed proceedings on the internet site for at least 3 years."
Three years is next to nothing, especially compared to the longevity of local newspapers, which have published 150-plus years. What happens on Day 1,100? What happens to the public record—and the people's access to their community's history?
Publishing notices in a designated newspaper also is about establishing and maintaining a legal record. No attorney could stand in a courtroom waving a smartphone image or computer screenshot of a government website as fact. Enter into evidence a notice clipped from a physical newspaper affixed to a notarized affidavit, however, and you have proof.
Current practice goes a long way toward preventing any school, city, town or county from deciding on a whim — or deliberately with a hidden agenda — what, where, when and how to inform the public. And the practice helps protect said governments from being challenged that they violated people's rights.
Some lawmakers don't understand the role of published legals. They haven't given the matter thorough consideration.
And then there a few lawmakers who have given it careful thought and their motivation is clear: They can't wait to get rid of the watchdog.
Public notices play an important role in free and open government. For the sake of the people, Wisconsin lawmakers to reject this legislation.