Municipalities in Minnesota are pushing hard for a bill that would give them the flexibility to choose how they publicize legal notices — and potentially save thousands of dollars.
Senate File 1152, authored by Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, gives cities and counties in Minnesota the option of posting notices of their meetings and public business to their official government websites. Local governments and school boards in the state currently have to publish those notices in local newspapers, which can be a drain on local government coffers.
According to a report in the St. Cloud Times, Stearns County, Minn., spent $14,693 to place notices in the Cold Spring Record during 2013, and St. Cloud, Minn., typically spends approximately $30,000 each year for similar postings. Beau Berentson, policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties, told the Times that 43 of the state’s 87 counties have passed resolutions supporting S.F. 1152.
In an interview with Government Technology, Pederson explained that he began to see the expenses related to legal notice publishing become an issue during his time on the St. Cloud City Council. He felt that with technology at the level it now is, using websites to publicize legal notices can save local governments money that can be put to better use elsewhere.
If S.F. 1152 becomes law, the public could still receive print versions of all notices by contacting their city or county. Paper copies will be sent using First Class mail at no cost to the resident.
The bill is opposed by the Minnesota newspaper industry, which stands to lose revenue generated from legal notice publication. Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told Government Technology that the revenue loss – which he categorized as “miniscule” — was a secondary concern for the industry. He said the main issue is for newspapers is making sure public notices are seen by citizens.
“It’s not going to happen nearly as effectively if these are buried on government websites,” Anfinson said, regarding public access to government notices. “Government websites are wonderful … but they aren’t used by residents and citizens to look for something like this.”
Pederson, however, believes the choice of how public notices are posted should be left in the hands of local government leaders. He felt that if the legislation went through, city councilmen and county representatives would be able to deliberate and decide through public input what type of notice dissemination was right for each community.
When asked if a middle ground could be reached on the bill by eliminating the print publication mandate, but requiring local governments to post on a newspaper’s website instead — thereby potentially saving local governments some costs — Anfinson didn’t think it would work. He said the idea would give citizens the ability to still monitor government through an independent source, but felt printed newspapers were still the primary vehicles people use to view public notices and doesn't envision that changing any time soon.
S.F. 1152 remains stuck in the Minnesota State and Local Government Committee since March 7. Committee Chair Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is a co-sponsor of the bill, but so far has declined to bring it up for a vote. Pederson indicated that he’s disappointed that Pappas hasn’t made a move on the bill and if the legislation isn’t voted on, it will likely die in the committee.
Anfinson believes the committee’s inaction indicates that Minnesota lawmakers may have concluded that the bill is not a good idea, or is at least premature.
“A majority of the residents in every community will generally look first for information about their community to the local information professionals — the ones whose specialty it is to collect and present community information in an attractive, useable, timely and accurate way,” Anfinson said. “In most places, those professionals are at the local newspaper.”
A similar bill on the issue, House File 1286, was introduced last year in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Like S.F. 1152, however, the measure remains stuck in a committee —in this case the House Government Operations Committee — with no hearing currently scheduled.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.