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Our View: Will it save money or isolate the public?

Thursday, June 4, 2009 - 1:59am

By Peter D. Fox, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association

A requirement that state government notify the public of its actions is actually a guarantee to citizens that what by law must be done is actually carried out.

Sadly, though, 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. Doyle and the State Legislature face a massive budget shortfall. Difficult decisions lie ahead. We can all agree that final choices must ensure that long-term necessities are not sacrificed to short-term gains that could end up costing more in decades ahead.

The issue of public notice emerged when a JFC member unexpectedly offered a relatively minor cost-reduction amendment while the committee worked on the governor's budget proposal. State Rep. Gary Sherman, a Democrat from Port Wing, a small community on the shore of Lake Superior, suggested elimination of the legal requirement for impartial, third-party publication of official state government notices. Let the government itself do it, he offered.

Bottom line was that Sherman wanted dozens of state agencies to do the job themselves rather than designate a newspaper to publish notices of official state government actions at a cost of about $150,000 annually. In four short minutes - with neither analysis nor financial data supporting it - the motion swiftly passed. Let state government be its own watchdog - even though it could cost government as much or more to coordinate the posting and archiving of these notices.

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

The scenario has caused many people to ask: "What are public notices, anyway? And why are they important?"

Simply put, 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 so interwoven into the fabric of our lives that they often are taken for granted - in short order they would become conspicuous by their absence should ideas such as this one take root.

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

Public notices fall into three main categories: citizen participation, business and commerce, and court-related notices. Citizen participation notice can range from public hearings on environmental issues to sidewalk assessments; business and commerce notices range from bid invitations to liquor-license applications; and court-related notices inform creditors and are crucial to due process.

But why newspapers? Why not just post notices on government Web sites and let the people hunt down the information important to them?

Pure and simple, newspapers are designated because they are 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 is the responsibility of government to "communicate out" to the public. The public should not have to discover government activities by "surfing" a multitude of Web sites.

Second, to this day newspaper publication is 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 is less than a computer and Internet access (when available). No one communications medium ever has reached 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, but newspapers come closest to that mark.

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 is no way to secure that verification on a government Web site.

In meeting its deadline to finish work by June, it appears JFC will not reconsider its hasty decision. What will happen when the Assembly and then the Senate take up the budget?