Editorial: Where should legals go?

Published 8:49 am Friday, February 27, 2009

There is a challenge each year to the state requirements of the publication of legal notices and other public information in legal newspapers. The Minnesota Newspaper Association is telling newspapers to expect a similar challenge this year in the state Legislature.

This may not be a change our local government officials want, but any change would have impact on the public and public officials statewide, including your local city council, county board, school board and others.

Newspapers are still the best way to make sure legal notices and other information are published in a timely, responsible manner.

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The system in place now acts a as check and balance of local governments, such as cities, counties, school districts, municipal hospitals and similar local public governmental entities. Changes in ordinances, certain probate filings and other material must be published in a timely manner to ensure the public is notified.

Newspapers do not edit the content or delay the publication of such information.

What checks and balances would be in place if the local government was solely responsible for publishing its own public information on its own Web site? None that we know of.

What if a government official simply forgets to post a legal notice?

We’re not predicting these scenarios locally, but this must be considered in the broader picture — what if a public official, for ulterior motives, forgets on purpose or what’s to prevent a public official from “hiding” a legal notice in some dark cavern of a local government Web site?

Newspapers must abide by legal standards when notices are published, and in proposals made for local government Web site posting only, there are no such standards. We are even mandated to post the notices on our Web sites.

While some local governments in the state have updated their Web sites, many remain clumsy and difficult to navigate. It’s also doubtful that government Web sites will reach as much of the public as a newspaper and its Web site.

At the same time, government officials may want to have the sole option of posting legal notices only on their government Web sites; it’s newspapers they come to when they want to spread the word about a city, county or school issue. When they want the public to know about an award the police department receives or coverage of a high school sports team, they look to the newspaper.

It is then ironic those same government officials would believe a posting on government Web site would be the best way to inform the public of a change in ordinance or bid letting.

Government officials may also say it’s less expensive to publish on the local government Web site.

It does cost money to publish in the newspaper, but don’t think posting on the government Web site is free. Taxpayers must pay for the time and, ultimately, the software and other equipment to maintain and operate a local government Web site.

And what about smaller cities? Do they have the time and money to invest in software and manpower to upgrade technology, to post public information and to monitor those postings?

Who will archive the postings of legal information? How do you ensure those postings won’t be deleted intentionally or unintentionally in the future?

Newspapers are a matter of record. A citizen can check back issues of newspapers for years to read an official record of public action.

When public money is tight, it’s even more important to make sure government bodies operate openly and can withstand scrutiny.

— Marshall Independent, Feb. 8