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Our view: Don't close the windows to government

Herald editorial board

A few years ago, a small-town newspaper upset a lawmaker when his weekly column didn't appear in print. The newspaper traditionally published the weekly columns of all three members of the legislative district, and that week only two of those columns made their way into the printed edition.

Of course, the lawmaker was upset at not being able to convey his accomplishments to the newspaper's readers, and therefore his constituents. Turns out, the newspaper instead had only published his column online, on the newspaper's website.

The flummoxed lawmaker wondered why.

The newspaper owner reminded the lawmaker that he — the lawmaker — was leading a legislative charge to only post legals and public notices online, and not in print. If the lawmaker believes so strongly that constituents will see public notices online, then he naturally cannot be angry when his weekly column appears only online, the newspaper owner told him.

The lawmaker got the point and lost interest in the proposal to only post legals online.

This is Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide campaign in which the media and others promote government transparency. Interestingly, it is accompanied this year by another regular occurrence — a movement to remove legals and public notices from newspapers in North Dakota.

The proposal being pushed by the North Dakota Association of Counties would allow governments to stop publishing minutes of their meetings in official newspapers and instead put the minutes only on government websites. The idea will go before the Legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee this spring.

The plan is to save money, but it's important for readers to know how much — actually how little — money that is.

As we mentioned in this space in 2016 (yes, this comes up that often), the amount governments pay for publishing legals generally is less than 1 percent of their budgets. For instance, in 2016 the city of Grand Forks paid some $140,000 overall for advertising in the Herald, the bulk of which was in legal notices for announcing new ordinances, special assessment notices and meeting agendas. It also included non-mandated advertising the city buys from us, announcing flu shots, events or recreation opportunities.

Yet that $140,000 is only a tiny fraction of a half percent of the city's overall budget. Same goes for other, smaller government entities like school boards and county commissions.

Meanwhile, requiring legals in local newspaper allows for true oversight of these boards by the people who really pay the bills. Sure, that information could be posted only on a government website, but who really visits those places? What about technical glitches that are bound to occur? Will those sites be easily accessible by readers of all ages?

Remember that North Dakota voters were asked this question in 2016, and 85 percent said they want to keep public notices in their newspapers.

Elected board members work for the people, and not the other way around. Because of that order, the people must be able to easily see what's happening on these boards and with public money.

Taking legals out of newspapers will close the windows and make it considerably harder for the public to peer in. It would be a great mistake.