This story is a few weeks old and almost got away from me, but with the news that state republicans have pulled non-budget items out of the state budget only to be revisited later, the provision to end the public notice mandate is still in play.
You might recall the commotion Wisconsin newspapers made weeks ago when they were editorializing against a proposal to end the requirement that local government bodies post meeting minutes in their local newspaper. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association sees the proposal as an attack on the public's ability to know what their elected representatives and local governments are up to. I can understand some of the concern there if this was 2000, but I don't see the proposed state policy change as that big a problem today.
From my understanding, the bill would only affect the state requirement that meeting minutes be published in a local newspaper. It would not change the requirement that public hearings and meeting agendas be published and the bill does nothing to prevent or prohibit newspapers from publishing the meeting minutes. So what it primarily does is end a state imposed unfunded mandate on local government ...and who would be against that?
Secondly, local governments and school boards could still pay newspapers to publish their meeting minutes if they choose. So nothing would change there either.
Unfortunately, because Gov. Scott Walker and state republicans have a history of ideologically-driven proposals designed to strip away local control, gut open records or legislatively defund targeted voting-blocs, it's easy to knee-jerk against this proposal. Keep in mind most of the newspapers opposing the bill previously endorsed Walker and the legislators supporting it. But this bill isn't one of those and with the internet - its time has come.
Against that backdrop, the Janesville Gazette posted an editorial suggesting a local Republican can redeem herself by keeping the state mandate intact.
Titled "A second chance for Rep. Loudenbeck," the newspaper's editorial staff scolds ALEC Rep. Amy Loudenbeck about her vote two years ago to gut Wisconsin's open record laws and block public access to legislators' emails and other public documents. They're right about all that - Loudenbeck is terrible - all the way up to the day the Gazette's editorial staff endorsed her for re-election in November. I kid you not.
The Gazette then suggests to the awful legislator how she can "redeem" herself in their eyes - as if she needs that to win their endorsement - "by demanding she vote against any budget bill containing the change to publication requirements — we want her to be proactive and persuade others on the Joint Finance Committee to oppose it," they wrote.
Their editorial also insists their opposition to the provision isn't about finances...
Some proponents of eliminating publication requirements have accused newspapers of having ulterior motives, caring more about their pocketbooks than government transparency. But it's worth noting that the type of public notices being targeted by these proposals account for only 0.2 percent of The Gazette's revenue—that's right, two-tenths of 1 percent.
OK. Keep that thought. The Gazette gets paid by government to post notices in a newspaper that readers must buy ...to read. The Gazette then says that's all secondary because their primary concern is the state's anti-transparency culture. Really? Not to sound redundant, but they repeatedly endorse candidates of that culture every November.
But regarding their faux rage of concern about maintaining access to public information ...etc, etc ...the Gazette is in a unique position because Bliss Com (parent company) also distributes a twice weekly free publication that contains none of the public meeting minutes they are paid by government to publish. That's right. The newspaper is so concerned about the public's right to know that they put the information behind the pay wall of their flagship Gazette hard copy.
And, if you needed to look up the minutes of a meeting from two months ago, you better keep bundles of old Gazettes in your attic or garage. Because the Gazette doesn't keep them archived at their Web Site. They do keep some public records archived, but only for traffic violators, arrests and court hearings.
So, the reality is the Gazette actually makes a great case to end the state mandated charade forcing locals to post meeting minutes.
To put it in a free market perspective: If public demand was high for that information, the Gazette would publish those meeting minutes without government payola as a feature to lift subscriptions. Right?
Truth is; no one is taking public notices away from the newspapers - except the newspapers themselves. The First Amendment guarantees that right. I fully expect Rep. Amy Loudenbeck to "redeem" herself in the eyes of the Janesville Gazette by supporting the public notice payoff.
That's what awful legislators do.