Advocate for open government

Emily Bialkowski

Managing Editor

By the time you read this, the Houston County Board will have voted on some version of Resolution No. 14, which  supports legislation that would allow counties to use their websites to publish public notices.

I am against Resolution No. 14 and communicated why to each of the five County Board commissioners by email, with a telephone call and by making a public statement at the Feb. 18 board meeting where the resolution was first introduced.

Distributed by the Association of Minnesota Counties, the resolution supports legislation that would allow counties to publish items such as public hearings, election notices, minutes of their meetings and other legally required information on their websites instead of in newspapers.

The resolution was first presented to the County Board by County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski, who said it will allow his department to post construction projects on the state’s website, a clearing house, if you will, for contractors to visit for job opportunities. To be sure, I have no problem with such notices being posted on the state and county website.

I do, however, possess enormous concern over the fact that the language in Resolution No. 14 says “public notices,” not “road construction projects.”

The resolution contains slippery wording that at first glance seems innocuous. Under the guise of cost savings, this loophole could be used to shut the public out of information that can be of keen interest to citizens, especially those without Internet access.

According to numbers requested from County Finance Director Carol Lapham, the county spent less than $5,000 in 2013 on legal notifications, a small price to pay in the name of open, public government.

Having a printed, permanent record of public notices, maintained by a source independent of government interference, is crucial to ensuring that information is not changed after the fact.

Furthermore, the county’s website disclaimer clearly states, “Houston County reserves the right to make additions, changes or corrections at any time and without notice.” What assurances do constituents have against errors and omissions with a policy like that?

The county can put anything it desires on its website, but, by taking legal notifications out of the newspaper, the county is limiting the way it distributes important public information to the thousands of people who look to their community newspaper for such reports.

In November and December 2013, Scarborough, a polling company, surveyed 1,005 Minnesotans about newspaper readership habits. The poll asked the question, “Suppose you could get public notices anywhere. Which way would you prefer?” The answer was overwhelmingly “in newspapers.”

• Newspaper or its website: 39 percent.

• Mail: 23 percent.

• Social media: 8 percent.

• Television: 6 percent.

• Government website: 6 percent.

• Radio: 4 percent.

Eliminating such notices from the newspaper alienates the people in the county that do not have Internet access. As a journalist, I am asked and compelled to make sure government remains open and administered by the people, for the people. Resolution No. 14 undermines the very core of open, public dissemination of governmental proceedings.

In light of the fact that a discrepancy arose between the resolution Pogodzinski was talking about and the copy of the resolution provided in the commissioner packet, the County Board pushed off voting on the item until a second draft could be produced that pinpointed what exactly was acceptable to be on the website and what should remain in the newspaper.

Commissioner Dana Kjome brought up an excellent question when he asked, “Who decides what gets on website and what in paper” – a comment that clearly supports my argument that the resolution’s language lacks specifics and leaves public record up to chance.

Commissioner Judy Storlie said she was OK with Highway Department’s postings going online but added, “I don’t want to support all the other things going on the website.”

“Some notices really need to be in the paper,” Commissioner Steve Schuldt added.

I am happy the board is taking the time to really consider the implications of this resolution and hope they fully review the wording of any resolution that damages their constituency’s ability to know what is going on.

 

You can contact Emily Bialkowski at emily.bialkowski@ecm-inc.com.

 

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