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Our View...Let the public take notice

The Carlton Board of Commissioners is considering a vote in support of a proposal that would allow local governments to place legal notices on their own websites instead of local newspapers.

We’re hoping the County Board — along with local city councils and school boards — will consider the issue carefully and look beyond the potential monetary savings (which would be minimal, compared to the overall size of the county’s budget).

The purpose of public notice requirements is to publicize information about government actions in places where the public is most likely to see it, so its citizens can make well informed decisions and be active participants in a democratic society. It’s been that way since colonial times — when the federal government ordered the publication of every bill, order, resolution and congressional vote to be published in at least three public newspapers.

It is the duty of government to provide information about its actions in a transparent and easily accessible manner.

Does a government website fit that bill? Just look at Obamacare for the short answer to that question.

Then ponder further.

Should government post its own legal notices? Should government be its own watchdog? Do you trust local government enough to believe that everything it’s employees post on its own website is absolutely true … and that those web pages will never be modified, spun, tampered with and will endure for decades to come?

If it’s printed in the paper, that notice can’t be changed. It’s there, on paper, in black and white for all to see. It can be presented in court as evidence, filed away for posterity or framed and hung on the wall.

Right now there are legal consequences to local governments if they fail to properly publish certain notices. If a government website goes down, will citizens be able to challenge their actions for failure to meet statutory publication requirements?

Then there’s the question of access for all: rich or poor, working class or elite.

For $1.50, anyone can pick up a copy of our newspaper off the newsstand. (Note: It’s half that price to subscribe.) Legal notices are also posted free on our website, a two-for-one deal that combines to serve pretty much every member of the reading public.

If all notices appear on local government websites, do you really think every citizen of Minnesota has access to a computer and the Internet, and knowledge of how to use it?

There are many senior citizens who have chosen to ignore the Internet all-together. There are people who can’t afford a computer and an Internet connection, or who live so far out in the country that all they can get is a dial-up connection to the Internet.

Then there’s the issue of reliability. Websites crash. Things disappear all the time, by accident and on purpose. Hackers cause mayhem just for fun sometimes, other times for gain.

Yes, newspapers make money from legal notices. But at the same time, newspapers are an objective third party in this process, and have long advocated that public notices be readily accessible. If profit were the only motivation, Minnesota’s newspaper industry would not have worked for the past 30 years to streamline public notice laws, resulting in proposals that have repealed more than 300 outdated and obsolete public notice statutes.

If local governments want to post legal notices on their websites, we think that’s a great idea.

But those notices should also be required to be posted in a public newspaper, where anyone can see it and it doesn’t require an investment of several hundred dollars — the cost of a computer — and a working Internet connection to see it.

Jana Peterson