North Dakota law currently requires county governments to publish their meeting minutes in official local newspapers. The purpose of the law, of course, is to maintain transparency with the public. It’s debatable how many people actually read them, but there’s certainly those that do— faithfully. And rightfully so. Its too bad more of us didn’t do the same. After all, these meetings typically take place during a time when working folks can’t attend.
The North Dakota Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee was tasked last session with “studying the various legal notice and publishing requirements of all state agencies and political subdivisions, the related costs required in state and political subdivision budgets, and potential notification alternatives.” As a result of this study, the committee is now proposing a bill draft that would no longer require county governments to publish their meeting minutes in official local newspapers.
In a nutshell, the bill draft provides an alternative to publishing in the newspaper by adding the option to do so on “the official website of the county”.
As you can imagine, the North Dakota Newspaper Association is none too happy with the proposal. Not only did the organization’s Executive Director Steve Andrist – son of late State Senator John Andrist – attend yesterday’s Judiciary Committee meeting, but he brought along the organizations legal counsel to share in voicing their displeasure with the proposed legislation.
Andrist went as far to claim:
“In general, newspapers are more effective and a more useful medium than government websites to provide this information to the general public.”
I disagree. As much as I hate to say this, Mr. Andrist is defending a medium of communication with the public that has historically been very valuable, but in today’s age of technology and the internet, it’s going the way of the dinosaurs. The Washington Examiner actually covered this topic earlier this year in an article titled, “The Death of the American Newspaper“.
The North Dakota Newspaper Association’s attorney Jack McDonald expressed his view that:
“No matter how you turn out on this bill and what the final result is, the end result is that you’re making it harder for people to find out what went on.”
Again, I disagree. I just don’t believe that’s true. Almost everyone has access to the internet these days. How difficult would it be for them to check meeting minutes on a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or smart phone? It could be argued that it’s more convenient. Not to mention that they wouldn’t have to buy a newspaper to do it. Ahhhh, I think we may have just found the true reason for the opposition. If we’re honest with ourselves, local newspapers stand to lose revenue if this bill becomes law. Not only would people not have to buy the newspaper to read meeting minutes, but the newspaper would lose out on the revenue for publishing such notices.
One Judiciary Committee member – State Senator Janne Myrdal – hit it on the head in a meeting on January 11, 2018. The minutes show:
“Senator Myrdal said although she understands the importance of rural newspapers, it should not be the responsibility of the state or taxpayers to fund local newspapers through statutory notice requirements.”
I agree. Not only is the bill a good idea, but maybe it needs to be expanded to include other notices as well.
I don’t relish the idea of losing local newspapers— though I seldom read my own. But times are changing. Adjustments need to be made. And it appears the Judiciary Committee has identified an area where taxpayers can actually be saved a little bit of money. Would it require a shift in thinking for some of those devoted readers of meeting minutes? Sure. But I think it’s worth it.
It’s not a huge expenditure, but I give credit to the Judiciary Committee for trying to find ways to improve government efficiency and to save taxpayers some money. We need more of this in Bismarck.