Something good happened last month in the South Dakota Legislature. House Bill 1167 was killed.
HB 1167 would have allowed municipalities with more than 5,000 population to post legal notices on internet websites only, instead of publishing them in local newspapers. The bill was defeated 11-1 in the House Local Government Committee. The lone vote in favor was cast by its sponsor.
This was a “divide and conquer” strategy by the South Dakota Municipal League to pass a bill that mostly affected the state’s largest communities and daily newspapers. Editors at our small rural newspaper and other weeklies fought it alongside the dailies.
This is not just a South Dakota issue. There have been attempts to remove public notices from newspapers in at least 13 states this year. Among them: New Jersey, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Kansas and Connecticut.
In 1789, Acts of the First Session of the Congress ordered publication of government proceedings in newspapers. For 228 years, that decision has kept communities informed of town, city, county, school and other government business. Without them, it’s easy to imagine governments holding secret meetings, or awarding bids to friends before others know bids are even being accepted.
Newspapers are paid to publish this information, so we are biased in that regard, but the price is established and controlled by the state. On average, cost of publishing public notices is less than one percent of a local government’s budget. It can be argued that printing notices in newspapers pays for itself through the accountability added to the governing process.
Accessibility is another issue. Public notices have less visibility on government websites. It evokes the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Publishing notices in newspapers means they are delivered to the public in a reliable vehicle on a regular schedule. Surveys show people would read public notices less frequently if they were placed only on government websites. Less visibility = less accountability.
Should government have sole control of its taxpayer-funded information? Publishers tell of instances when their newspaper archives were searched by attorneys or officials looking to verify or authenticate publication of a public notice from the past. There is value in having newspapers as an independent third-party check involved in keeping those records.
In South Dakota, a school official once altered public notices on the district website after someone complained about a sensitive topic in them. In Wyoming, a city was sued after officials falsified historic public records on a zoning case from 20 years earlier. The plaintiff discovered the falsification by checking the original public notices in the newspaper.
Years before he entered the newspaper business, a rural teenager asked his farmer father why he was reading that page packed with small print in the back of the newspaper.
“Because,” the farmer replied, “I want to see how the county is spending my tax dollars. I like to see who they are doing business with.”
That farmer’s particular interest was the list of bills paid by the county, but news of all kinds is published in public notices. Meeting minutes, government salaries, budgets, zoning decisions, delinquent tax lists, bid awards, tax exempt properties, election information, and proposed ordinances are other examples of the valuable content in legal notices.
A lot of this information is never reported by media who cover the meetings. And sometimes a small item in the minutes cloaks a big story. Two examples:
Last year, a weekly newspaper in South Dakota reported up to $72,000 may have been embezzled by the finance officer in a small town. The reporter’s tip was an obscure mention of possible “employee dishonesty” in the town board minutes.
Four years ago, an alert newspaper reader noticed a $10,900 payment to a former school superintendent in South Dakota. It turned out the payment was part of a secret $175,000 severance package.
Those stories and many others would never be told if not for public notices.
Brian Hunhoff, of Yankton, South Dakota, is a two-time winner of the Golden Quill for editorial writing. Hunhoff is also a recipient of the Freedom of Information award from the National Newspaper Association.