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County debates newspapers vs. websites for legal publications

The question of whether the county should continue to publish its legal announcements in newspapers and/or transition them to computer websites met with mixed feedback at Tuesday’s meeting of the Carlton County Committee of the Whole.

Under debate is proposed legislation that would make it possible for government entities to publish public notices on their websites instead of, or in addition to, an official newspaper. Counties are currently required by law to publish public notices such as board minutes, hearing notices, delinquent tax lists and election information in a designated official newspaper selected by the county through an annual bidding process.

Commissioner Marv Bodie introduced a resolution developed by the Association of Minnesota Cities supporting the legislation and asked that commissioners and department heads consider the merits of the proposal, which he said has already been endorsed by about half of Minnesota’s counties.

“The overall sense is that the legislature wants us to be able to do what we think is best for our local counties,” explained Bodie. “I am in favor of moving this forward, since at least half of our people have already indicated they want to do both [publish in newspapers as well as on the county website].”

Local governments already have the ability to post legal notices on their websites … in addition to posting the notices in a legal newspaper. However, according to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, relatively few governmental bodies have taken that extra step.

When questioned how much money is spent on legal advertising in a year, County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert said the cost of publishing the county’s delinquent tax list each March runs about $15,000. He explained, however, that each delinquent taxpayer is assessed a fee of $20 toward the cost of publishing, making it basically a no-cost situation for the county.

Gassert went on to say the county spends about $5,000 in publishing its board minutes and about $7,500 in election notices.

“We need to publish these things in a way that will ensure that everyone gets an equal shot at reading them,” said Gassert.

Gassert said the county publishes its board minutes and delinquent tax lists on its website in addition to in the newspaper, but he said public hearing notices go exclusively in the designated newspaper, and election notices go in all the publications in the county.

Heather Cunningham, planning and environmental services director, said her department spends about $3,000 annually in legal notices such as zoning applications and permits.

“I would like to continue to publish in the newspaper,” said Cunningham, “though I would like to see them on the county’s website in addition.”

Cunningham reported that County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu, who was not able to be present at Tuesday’s meeting, spends about $10,000 annually for legal notices such as timber auctions and land sales.

“I don’t want to put words in Greg’s mouth,” said Cunningham, “but the sense that I got from him is that he’d like to see them remain in the newspaper.”

County Coordinator Dennis Genereau acknowledged that the county still has a large number of people who rely on newspapers for gaining access to public notices, adding, however, that he also understands “where we are heading” when it comes to computer technology.  

Tim Franklin, owner of the Star-Gazette in Moose Lake, which was awarded the bid to publish the county’s legal notices and proceedings for 2014, said newspapers remain the media of choice for the majority of readers.

“Citizens aren’t going to websites [to read legal notices],” Franklin attested. “When you break down the cost of publishing them in the newspaper, it only amounts to about five cents per citizen to publish the board minutes and two cents to publish election notices.”

Bodie questioned Franklin about how many households currently receive the Star-Gazette, and Franklin said the newspaper’s circulation is approximately 2,000. Bodie pointed out there are about 10,000 households in Carlton County. Franklin countered by saying that the newspaper selected as the legal newspaper for a governmental agency is required by state statute to post the same legal notices on its website for no additional charge, thereby giving all households in the county access to them regardless of whether they subscribe to the printed edition or not.

“I know of lots of people who don’t use the Internet,” said Commissioner Gary Peterson, reasoning that it still seems the most fair to publish legal notices in the newspaper. “I do like the fact, however, that the resolution gives options to the counties,” he added.

Dan Reed, a reporter for the Star-Gazette, said he believes the county’s responsibility is to get “the most information out to the greatest amount of people.”

“Some of them don’t currently, and never will, use the Internet,” said Reed. “This type of discussion smacks of a discussion of class — of the haves and have nots — and that’s a bad place to go. Our responsibility should be to put out as much information to as many people as we can.”

Genereau tempered Reed’s comments by saying it is less a matter of class than it is a matter of generation [when it comes to whether people read the newspaper or the Internet]. “Every kid in school has a [cell] phone,” he said.

In the end, Commissioners Bodie, Peterson and Tom Proulx (Commissioners Dick Brenner and Bob Olean were absent) voted in favor of moving the resolution on for further discussion at next week’s meeting of the County Board, which takes place at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in the County Transportation Building on Old Highway 61 in Carlton.

In other business discussed at the Committee of the Whole meeting, Transportation Director Mike Tardy presented a maintenance update and budget review for the year to date, commenting the extreme winter has taken its toll. Tardy reported that during the period of Feb. 17-20, when the county received 14 inches of snow, his road maintenance crews worked the maximum number of hours allowed — 16 hours — on Friday and then returned again on Saturday. They also worked parts of Sunday and Monday, when high winds and drifting snow obscured the roads once again.

“We’ve been putting in some heavy-duty time,” he commented.

He said some $557,000 in salaries and benefits has already been expended thus far this year, out of an annual budgeted amount of some $3.5 million. In spite of that, he said, his department is only running about $24,000 over budget because two vacant positions have not yet been filled. He added that the county has also had to purchase 2,700 tons of salt thus far and is on the list to acquire more.

“We didn’t expect anything like this,” he admitted. “We budget for an ordinary winter, but we can’t budget for an extraordinary winter like this one, so hopefully we can make adjustments along the way. We still have 10 months left to make those adjustments.”