Another defeat for online-only public notices

An ongoing battle between local governments and newspapers ended in yet another victory for newspapers Tuesday, as a legislative committee declined to let governments out of printing public notices.

For years, local cities, counties and school boards have unsuccessfully pressed the Legislature to allow them to to post meeting minutes and official notices online in lieu of the longstanding requirement to pay to publish those in official newspapers.

They say it’s a question of efficiency and using modern technology.

"The world has changed," said Dick Tieszen, a lobbyist for the Sioux Falls School District. "It’s time we change this archaic law."

Tieszen and others testified that publishing public notices can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. If they could publish those documents online instead, they said they could use that money for other purposes, such as hiring more teachers.

The South Dakota Newspaper Association opposed the measure, House Bill 1224. Director David Bordewyk said newspapers are still the best way to get information out to the public, since a shrinking but still significant portion of the public doesn’t have regular internet access.

"At least half of all South Dakotans read notices in the public newspaper," Bordewyk said.

Dianne Miller, lobbyist for most of the large school districts in the state, said any arguments about public knowledge were smokescreens.

"It’s about revenue for the newspapers. It’s not about the right to know," Miller said.

Bordewyk replied by saying that newspapers are limited by law to charge public bodies far less than their normal ad rates for printing notices, and said papers publish those notices online for free at sdpublicnotices.com.

Most members of the House Local Government Committee were skeptical of the proposal, worrying about how people without internet access would get information. The bill provided for print copies to be mailed out on request to members of the public, but people like Rep. Karen Soli, D-Sioux Falls, said that wasn’t enough.

"We are certainly moving to a paperless society, and I think that’s important," said Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls. "We certainly are going that way, but I think (the bill is) not timely."

The committee voted 11-3 to kill the bill.