MADISON — Representatives from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association on Wednesday testified before the state Assembly Committee on Local Government to oppose a bill that would do-away with the newspaper publication of local government meeting minutes.
Assembly Bill 70 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 42, would give school boards, city councils, village boards, county boards and technical college boards the option to post meeting minutes and proceedings on their own websites to fulfill publication requirements instead of printing them in a local newspaper, which is currently required by state law.
During her testimony, WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett highlighted the findings of the Joint Legislative Council Study Committee on the Publication of Government Documents and Legal Notices – which met during the late summer of 2016 – and described the industry’s long-standing practice of making all public notices that are published in newspapers available electronically on WisconsinPublicNotices.org.
“In the end, the legislative council committee did not recommend that legal notices be moved from newspapers in favor of government websites,” Bennett said. “The legislative council’s review of why legal notices exist and why they are published in newspapers demonstrated that there is far more to the publication of a legal notice than simply informing the public via a printed notice in the newspaper.”
Robb Grindstaff, general manager of Hometown News Limited Partnership and W.D. Hoard & Sons Publishing in Fort Atkinson, and Andrew Johnson,publisher of the Dodge County Pionier in Mayville, also testified against the bill. WNA President John Ingebritsen, publisher of Morris Newspapers based in Lancaster, attended the hearing and registered his opposition with the committee.
“Transparency and accountability of government bodies and public servants – elected and unelected – require this positive, active communication from the government to the people they serve,” said Grindstaff. “There exists no more effective and cost-efficient method to reach the largest number of citizens possible than through the pages of the local community newspaper, the news medium used by more people to find out what’s going on their community than any other source, in print or online.”
Johnson also explored the issue of government transparency and how Assembly Bill 70 was a threat to the public’s “right to know.”
“The idea of open government involves three things, as most of you in this room probably know,” Johnson said. “There’s open meetings, open records and public notices. If any one of them falls, our open government doesn’t work correctly.”
Helen Marks Dicks, representing AARP of Wisconsin, testified against the passage of Assembly Bill 70 on behalf of the more than 840,000 AARP members statewide. She told the committee that older Americans are less likely to proactively seek information online and rely on newspapers and other traditional media to stay informed.
“We’re probably the biggest readers of the minutes,” she said. “... We assume if (information) were important, it would come to us.”
Supporters of the bill who spoke at the hearing included the Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, a Republican from Fond du Lac and lead author of Assembly Bill 70; Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB); Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities; and Brett Hyde, vice president of the Muskego-Norway School District and second vice president of WASB.
Rep. Edward Brooks, R-Reedsburg and chairman of the Assembly Committee on Local Government, said no committee meetings had been scheduled to consider action on Assembly Bill 70.
About the Wisconsin Newspaper Association
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) was established in 1853 and is among the longest serving press associations in the world. Created by and for Wisconsin’s newspapers, WNA exists to strengthen the newspaper industry, enhance public understanding of the role of newspapers, and protect basic freedoms of press, speech and the free flow of information.
In addition to serving 218 member newspapers (31 dailies and 187 weeklies), WNA serves advertisers through advertising placement programs and additional clients through media monitoring services.