Wisconsin lawmakers are proposing a fundamental change in the way local governments notify the public about their meetings and what happens in those meetings.
Wisconsin state legislators are circulating a pair of bills, AB70 and SB42, that aim to take public notices out of newspapers and put them instead on government websites.
This change is a direct threat to the public when it comes to being active, responsible and educated about local governments. It would harm transparency, democracy and public trust.
Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no checks and balances to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post.
Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.
For those who choose not to use computers, it remains the best source.
For those who do use computers, there’s already an invaluable resource at your fingertips. Since 2005, newspapers in Wisconsin have been digitally archiving every public notice published in every newspaper in our state every day. Today, a decade of this information is available free of charge on this website: www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org.
Wisconsin newspapers collect and archive this information as a public service. The database is very user-friendly — searchable by city, county, newspaper, zip code and keyword. Businesses throughout the state use this website to learn about projects they may wish to bid on. Just ask a contractor how efficient it would be to have to log in daily to the website of every local government in Wisconsin.
The amount charged by newspapers for publishing public notices is regulated by the state Department of Administration. The rates charged barely cover the cost of processing and printing the information. It’s a good deal for taxpayers.
State law prescribes even the typeface and font size of these notices to help the DOA cut down on its administrative workload. The newspapers agreed to this standardization, and the Wisconsin Legislature approved it without opposition in 2012.
And government is not the sole bearer of the cost of publishing legal notices. In many cases, the cost is passed along by the government agency to those seeking government action.
Taking public notices out of newspapers is just another attempt by government officials to curb transparency in Wisconsin. It’s a bad move, and the people of Wisconsin should push back against it.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council