ND lawmakers debate relaxing public notice requirements as newspaper reps protest
BISMARCK—North Dakota lawmakers examined a bill draft Monday, April 2, that newspaper representatives warned would keep people in the dark about government actions but proponents said could cut costs by easing public notice requirements.
The proposed legislation would allow county governments to publish its meeting minutes and election returns on its website or in the local newspaper. That would be a departure from current law, which mandates publication in the newspaper.
State Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said the current requirements amount to an "unfunded mandate" on local governments that are trying to save money.
"I don't think this is an issue of transparency," she said, noting that information is rapidly shifting online. "I don't think we should sit here in Bismarck and tell local people how to do things with the taxpayers' money that we never see."
Rep. Karen Karls, R-Bismarck, countered that websites are "not free" either.
The interim Judiciary Committee didn't take any action on the bill after Monday afternoon's debate.
Representatives of North Dakota newspapers lobbied against the legislation, arguing the cost to publish the information in their pages is a small price to pay to keep readers informed. Allan Burke, who publishes the weekly Emmons County Record with his wife, said newspapers "provide a permanent record that cannot be hacked or electronically violated."
"In an era of 'fake news,' now is not the time to decrease government transparency by forcing people to one electronic portal which is not accessible to everyone," he said in prepared testimony.
The committee's chairman, Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, said the election results requirement is "duplicative" because that information is widely reported through various media, including the secretary of state's website. He said the debate over public notices reflects a larger conundrum facing government.
"What do you do when technology presents you with an opportunity to do things cheaper and better, but yet at the same time it hurts a cherished industry?" Hogue said.
North Dakota counties are required to publish 142 "various notices, listings, documents and other publications," said Donnell Preskey Hushka, government and public relations specialist for the North Dakota Association of Counties. In previous testimony, she cited the example of Towner County, which pays $6,000 a year to publish meeting minutes.
The bill draft would also allow county governments to avoid including "orders and vouchers for payment of moneys from the county treasury" in their minutes.