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Etc.: Important fine print

POSTED February 22, 2017 10:29 a.m.

On page 3A of your favorite weekly newspaper is a story about the proposed 2017–19 state budget and proposed state aid increases for schools, a subject covered in The Journal last week as well.

There is, however, another provision of the proposed budget that would be bad news for those who want to be informed citizens. In addition to the proposed budget, two bills in the Legislature, Assembly Bill 70 and Senate Bill 42, would eliminate the requirement that government bodies publish municipal ordinances, governmental body resolutions, financial statements, budgets and meeting minutes.

If you pay taxes (and everyone who reads The Journal does) and you haven’t read the legal notices found beginning on page 5B of The Journal, you really should. Legal notices — notices of elections (one of which was held Tuesday), meetings, annual budget notices, ordinances passed into law by city or village or town boards — are required by law because citizens should be able to easy tell what’s happening with their tax dollars.

Readers know that one thing that gets journalists in this state more angry than almost anything is efforts to evade the state Open Meetings Law and state Open Records Law. And it’s hard to see AB 70 and SB 42 as anything other than an attempt to skirt the Open Records Law. Readers should ask themselves why the Republican and Democratic sponsors of these bills are trying to hide public information that their constituents are entitled to be able to easily read. Remember when legislators tried to exempt themselves from the Open Meetings and Open Records laws around, of all times, Independence Day 2015? Here we go again.

Allowing municipalities and school districts to no longer print ordinances and meeting minutes in newspapers would put government in the position of reporting on itself. You need not be a fan of everything the news media does to realize that that would be an invitation to abuse. Public notices require government to inform those paying government’s bills to let the citizens know what government is doing, including what takes place in meetings and what government passes into law.

We have a recent example on page 1 of this week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper of how government doesn’t always work with your tax dollars in the open. The details of the developer’s agreement between the City of Platteville and the developer of the proposed Pioneer Ford Sales project are on the city’s website. Until it got on the city’s website only the people directly involved in the project probably knew that the proposal includes selling a property that cost the city $982,000 to the developer for $1. The Library Block project developer’s agreement was negotiated during closed-session meetings, and you’ll recall that many of the details of that agreement were quite a surprise when it came time to vote on them.

Whether or not the Library Block project was a good project or not, and whether the proposed Pioneer Ford project is a good project or not, isn’t the point. The point is that it is the obligation of government to actively keep citizens informed of what they’re doing. That’s what public notices do.

Publication of public notices has worked to keep citizens informed for decades. We print public notices and verify that they’ve been printed. Newspapers are used in every state in the nation to print records of the activities of government and the court system.

The bills’ authors say that allowing governmental bodies to publish those notices on their websites would save taxpayer money. That creates the false choice between saving taxpayer dollars and keeping citizens in the dark about how their tax dollars are used. If you want someone to read something, you have to deliver it to them to read, not merely stick something somewhere on a website and hope they read it. (Or, perhaps, hope they don’t read it.)

For one thing, government legal notices are already printed online at www.wisconsinpublicnotices.org, a website that costs neither government nor taxpayers nothing. For another, placing public notices on a city or village or school district website is a good way to make sure no one sees them.

It may surprise people to realize this, but Internet access is nowhere close to universal even today. Unless you’re willing to fork over whatever CenturyLink or your favorite cellphone provider charges you every month, you’re not going to see those governmental notices. A year of this newspaper costs about as much as a month of the lowest-price Internet service.

Contact Rep. Travis Tranel, (608) 266-1170, or Rep. Todd Novak, (608) 266-7502, and Sen. Howard Marklein, (608) 266-0703, and tell them to oppose Senate Bill 42, Assembly Bill 70 and any state budget provision that would allow government to do its business in the dark.

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