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A cloud over government transparency PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 March 2017 19:20

The people of Wisconsin should be told less about the actions of their elected officials.

That message is implicit in bills in the state Senate and Assembly that would repeal the state law requiring that meeting minutes, ordinances and budgets of municipalities and school districts be published in newspapers.

The bills would allow local governments to satisfy public notice requirements by posting the information on their own websites.

This legislation would make it harder for citizens to get information about their government and would be a setback for the transparency that is an essential element of democracy.

Newspaper publication of public notices, required by law in every state as one of the checks and balances of government, ensures an independent source of easily accessible government information—a permanent, unedited record of the actions of public officials.

Citizens should not have to search for this information on websites controlled by government agencies. It should be presented, as it is now, on the pages of the newspapers most citizens rely on for information about their elected governments.

Acting to reduce the availability of government information to the public is hard to defend, thus supporters of killing the newspaper public notice requirement have had to resort to the argument that it will save the taxpayers money.

Newspapers are paid to publish government minutes, budgets and ordinances. The rates are set by the state Department of Administration as part of detailed regulations that also specify the typestyle and size of the printed notices.

The payment rates, substantially less than commercial advertisers pay for newspaper space, barely cover the cost of processing and printing the information. 

In newspaper public notices, taxpayers get good value for expenditures that represent a tiny fraction of government budgets.

When Port Washington aldermen passed a resolution late last year supporting legislation to end the newspaper public notice requirement, it was in character for city officials who have often appeared insensitive to the public’s right to know about the actions of their elected representatives. 

The aldermen who urged state legislators to relieve them of the requirement to publish meeting minutes in Ozaukee Press, the city’s official newspaper, were the same Common Council members who held an unprecedented series of closed meetings from which the public and press were excluded in 2016. 

The meetings were mostly about the subject that has ignited strong public opposition, the proposed Blues Factory development on the lakefront, and were frequently followed by unanimous votes in favor of the development with little public discussion.

In a letter to the editor published in last week’s Ozaukee Press, Ald. Bill Driscoll exaggerated the potential savings of eliminating the newspaper public notice requirement by more than 50% and made dubious claims about declining newspaper readership (as does State Sen. Duey Stroebel in a letter in this issue of the Press).

Surveys have shown that Wisconsin residents depend on newspapers for information about government more than any other source. Circulation of community newspapers—those most affected by the proposed public notice change—remains robust. 

Readership of Ozaukee Press, the largest paid circulation community weekly in Wisconsin, is steady or growing in all of the communities the newspaper serves. In Port Washington, more than 75% of the households are reached by Ozaukee Press.

The Press, which devotes significant staff time and newspaper space to comprehensive coverage of local government in the communities it serves, is the primary source of public knowledge of local government issues in Ozaukee County. 

The official record of government activities, including the complete text of ordinances and budgets, belongs where citizens go to get information about their local government—in newspapers. Ending that is bad public policy that would erode open government. The public should not stand for it.

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