The administration of Gov. Scott Walker has been relentless in its attempt to weaken the state's public records and open meetings laws, and in his new budget Walker unleashed yet another assault on transparency, proposing to abandon requirements that governmental bodies publish certain public notices in newspapers.
The governor's proposal comes on the heels of a bipartisan effort last month by a group of lawmakers to roll back the publication of governmental meeting minutes.
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association is opposing both efforts.
As the Department of Administration budget frames it, the governor would allow all governmental units with printing, publishing, and mailing requirements the option to make most materials available electronically instead. Election documents and legal notices would be excluded.
"The governor also recommends giving the Department of Administration secretary the authority to waive particular printing, publishing and mailing requirements for state agencies in part or in whole or to waive electronic distribution," the DOA budget summary states.
In general, the budget bill provides that a statute requiring a governmental body to publish a document must be construed to allow that body to publish it electronically on its Internet site; that interpretation must be allowed even if the statute requires publication in a newspaper in a specified location.
In addition, if a statute requires publication both on the Internet and in another form, the budget bill requires the statute to the construed as allowing publication only on the government's website.
However, the relief from publication would not include the following documents: a notice and certificate of election, facsimile ballot, or referenda; certain election-related documents, including sample ballots and nomination forms; a notice of public hearing before a governmental body; or a notice of meetings of private and public bodies required by law, the budget bill states. Other documents exempted from the new publication standards would be a summons, order, citation, notice of sale or other notice that is intended to inform a person of rights or duties that must be exercised or performed within a designated period or by a designated date.
This bill also allows the secretary of administration to waive in whole or in part any statutory requirement for an executive branch agency to mail, print, or publish any nonexempt document, but only if the secretary determines that the waiver will reduce spending while keeping information accessible to the public, and protecting public health and welfare.
While the governor's proposal excludes certain legal and election notices, the impacts on transparency could be far-reaching, especially given the DOA's new waiver power.
In addition to that power, emergency rules - so designated because of their potentially immediate need for public health and safety reasons - could now take effect upon publication in the Wisconsin Administrative Register rather than upon publication in the official state newspaper, which current law now requires.
This bill also provides that the requirement that the sale of timber cut from a state, county, or community forest be advertised in a local newspaper may be satisfied by posting a notice on certain official Internet sites, the budget bill states.
The governor's proposal follows the circulation of a bill last month to abolish the requirements for publishing the minutes of government meetings in local newspapers.
Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Rep. Jason Fields (D-Glendale), Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) began circulating the bill last month.
The proposed bill would allow municipalities, school districts, counties, and technical colleges to satisfy the legal requirements of publishing meeting minutes by posting them on a website and one public place.
The bill would not change the requirement to print agendas and legal notices in the newspaper, but the lawmakers said the legislation would impact nearly all government entities statewide, though the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public School district, and most townships are already exempt.
Still, the lawmakers say, local governments would save thousands of dollars in publication costs.
"After discussions with local officials in my district, this bill will save thousands of dollars each year in needless publications of meeting minutes in newspapers while ensuring the information is available," Stroebel said.
Governmental bodies could continue to publish in newspapers if they wanted to, and, if no website was available, minutes would have to be published as current law requires.
Among the bill's supporters are the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association, School Administrators Alliance, Wisconsin League of Municipalities, Dane County Cities' & Villages' Association, the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance and the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.
The lawmakers' efforts and the governor's proposal come after a legislative study committee last year concluded that such sweeping changes were at least premature.
Specifically, the committee's mission was to study whether, and in what circumstances, current law should be modified to allow for information to be made available only electronically or through nontraditional media outlets, such as government websites, rather than current requirements for government documents and legal notices to be published in newspapers.
"Members discussed their general consensus that the committee should retain the current requirements for print publication of legal notices and maintenance of the statewide public notice website," the study committee reported. "The committee discussed the likelihood that future technological advancements and changes in how people access information may necessitate broader changes to the law, but agreed that this committee should not be making those changes at this time."
During hearings on the laws last summer, government officials and organizations such as the League of Wisconsin Municipalities homed in on the costs of publication, as well as efficiency and better accuracy in government operations.
"In addition to the potential cost-savings if cities were able to post legal notices in public places and on their website, there is an ability for cities to maintain the accuracy of effective dates and comply with legal notice classes defined in (the statutes)," Sandra Wesolowski, the city clerk of Franklin, testified. "If a publication error is made and the official newspaper is a weekly publication, the effective date of certain actions of governing bodies is impacted."
But Gregg Walker, the publisher of The Lakeland Times and the Northwoods River News, said newspapers reached an audience that governments could not match.
The news market has become more fragmented in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 years, Walker told the committee, but he said no other news medium had adjusted to that fragmented market better than newspapers.
"In other words, newspapers are reaching more people today than we ever have," Walker testified. "Newspapers are on the cutting edge of technology, and ahead of the curve in most cases."
People using mobile and electronic technology to get their news don't generally tune in to government websites but to news sites independent of the government, Walker said, and those are most often newspaper websites. And there they can find legal notices, too, he said.
In fact, Walker said, in most regions of the state, government can't provide the reach or up-to-date technology that a newspaper can.
"In our coverage area, there is no government entity with this ability to reach this number of people the way our newspaper does," he said. "The biggest town in our coverage area is the town of Minocqua, and they don't even have a Facebook page; all they have is a basic webpage."
Posted: Sunday, March 5, 2017
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