When a Ripon journalist would speak to third graders at Murray Park Elementary School about why newspapers are important, he’d give them a clue by taking out his wallet.

Only then would they get it. Public affairs reporting in newspapers lets readers know how powerful people are spending their money.

It provides some degree of transparency about budget priorities, but also accountability with those making financial decisions.

Legal Notices

All this is predicated on a simple notion, that even third graders understand: Knowledge is good. The corollary? The less we know, the less responsible to our wishes are those who do our bidding and open our wallets.

The Legislature in Madison is now entertaining the notion — and it has done this for years — of making citizens less aware of how their tax dollars are being spent by closing the curtain on accountability.

In Senate Bill 55, which passed last week, they propose to shroud democracy by removing meeting minutes from community newspapers. State statutes currently require local government units such as school boards and city council to post accounts of their activities in the local paper.

The bill, instead, would require government officials to post the minutes in a public place and on the internet (i.e. on their own websites). What’s a public place?

In Ripon, you could scotch tape School Board meeting minutes to the front windows of Ripon High School. And an account of City Council proceedings could go in the outdoor bulletin board in front of City Hall. What? You didn’t know there was such a bulletin board? Few do. And that’s the rub.

Likewise, the internet is a solution that doesn’t address the problem.

Posting meeting minutes on city of Ripon and Ripon Area School District (RASD) websites is an effective way to reach the public if:

  • Taxpayers have computers in their homes, and
  • Those computers have internet access, and
  • If the internet is fast, reliable, secure, and
  • If, and this is the biggest if, one can assume that folks every week have the time and motivation to peruse government websites.

Now compare that universe — which likely is somewhere between none and zero — with the number of people who read public notices in newspapers, whether by design or because they happen to be adjacent to news stories and advertisements.

It becomes apparent why S.B. 55 makes somewhere between none and zero sense.

The bill’s proponents, who include Ripon’s state Sen. Joan Ballweg, argue the bill will save taxpayers money.

No it won’t.

It would have to offset the meager, below-market reimbursement rates (set by the state’s Department of Administration) that local governments pay to newspapers to keep their citizens informed. Studies have shown that government officials tend to be more profligate with public funds when they know the public is in the dark about their spending habits. So save a nickel to spend a dollar.

Also, consider the source of this alleged fiscal frugality: A Legislature run by leaders who are hiring redistricting lawyers that likely will cost state residents more than $1 million for legal services to implement and defend state redistricting maps to assure the job security of those in power so they may pass bills that pinch pennies to keep the rest of us in the dark about what our governments are doing.

If, like them, you believe that public-notice requirements are an expensive nuisance that do not inform the citizens, then by all means, move them to where they may be posted in the dark, where no one will see them.

But if you believe, like Ripon’s third graders, that meeting minutes published in the Commonwealth are a critical component of the democratic experiment, then surely you believe that the cost of having an informed citizenry is a meager investment. For Ripon the last time a similar bill was introduced and defeated, the cost to the RASD was $3,628 out of a $19.5 million budget. That’s 2/100ths of a percent, or 29 cents per year per school district resident.

That’s a puny price to pay for having an informed citizenry.

Democracy never cost so little.

— Tim Lyke

(5) comments

Dan Gatzke

I have to pay for paper to be delivered to my home. I also have to pay for the internet to be available at my home. The paper is cheaper than the internet - plus I can look at it any time I want rather than hope that the internet is available due to their service issues. Bad bill - vote it out - Sen. Ballweg is out of touch with her constituents.

Kriss Standke

I also think the information needs to be shared and viewed by all. What I don't understand is if you feel the same way (Tim Lyke), why not publish the information as "News" rather than charging the taxpayer to publish it. The schools don't pay for anything... the taxpayers do.

Adam Umbreit

You must think that paper and print ink are free? Maybe the newspaper, website and labor cost to pay workers to type everything up and send if off for print is free? I bet the Ripon Press donates a lot of their services for a lot of things giving back to the taxpayers. The GOP has proven time and time again that they will go to the ends of their flat earth to keep folks less informed and less in control of their own democracy...

Sallie Helmer

Senate Bill 55, is not a barrier to government transparency. How do average citizens access Federal government Legislative actions? Over the internet is the answer. Modernizing the publications of proceedings (minutes) held by school boards and other government bodies is not an attempt at censoring information or “hiding it.” People who do not have access to a computer can use one at the library. Very few are without a cell phone that has data.

Senate Bill 55

“This bill authorizes city councils and the boards of villages, counties, school

districts, and technical college districts to satisfy their legal obligation to publish the

proceedings of regular and special meetings by posting a copy of the proceedings in

a public place, electronically placing a copy of the proceedings on the Internet site

maintained by the respective governmental unit, and transmitting a copy to the

newspaper designated by the governmental unit or likely to give notice in the

territory of the governmental unit. Generally, proceedings are defined as the

substance of every official action taken by a local governing body at any meeting of

the governing body. With some exceptions, current law requires each of these

governmental units to publish proceedings of meetings held by the council or board

in a newspaper published in the jurisdiction.

Under the bill, before the governmental unit may discontinue publication in a

newspaper, the governmental unit must do the following:

1. Provide 180 days' notice to the newspaper.

2. Publish two separate notices in the newspaper indicating that it will

discontinue publication in the newspaper and will instead post, electronically place,

and transmit the proceedings. The governmental unit may discontinue publication

of its proceedings 30 days after the second notice required under this provision.

3. Establish an electronic notification service to notify interested individuals

and organizations in the governmental unit each time the proceedings are posted,

electronically placed, and transmitted.”

Michael Shohoney

Sallie, I'm curious has any Republican ever done anything that you disagree with? Or, if it's Republican, you're down with it no matter what?

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