MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin newspapers are pledging to fight a bipartisan effort in the state Legislature to eliminate a requirement that meeting minutes of government entities be published in local newspapers.
A group of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers today announced that they were circulating a bill to do away with the requirement that summaries of meetings by school districts, municipalities, counties and technical colleges be printed in the newspaper. Instead, the meeting minutes, or summary of what occurred at a public meeting, would instead be posted on the government entity's website.
Supportive lawmakers pitched the proposal as both a way for cash-strapped governments to save money and a way to increase access to the information.
"I don't know anyone who keeps a stack of newspapers at home to reference minutes of proceedings," said Rep. Jason Fields, D-Glendale, in a prepared statement. "It is better to allow taxpayers to save money and have better and easier access to minutes."
But Beth Bennett, executive director of 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.
"Obviously we're adamantly opposed to it," said Bennett, whose organization represents more than 230 weekly and daily newspapers in the state. "Maintaining access to public information is at the very core of what we do as an industry. We believe posting information on a government website does not notify anyone of anything. It is not pushing information out."
Bennett said she did not find out about the bill until today, the day its sponsors put out a press release announcing the idea. A special legislative task force that last year studied the state's public notice requirements did recommend making the changes being pursued in the bill.
The proposal is sponsored by Fields and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, along with Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. The sponsors say the proposal is supported by eight groups representing school boards and administrators, counties, technical colleges, municipalities.
The bill would only affect the requirement that meeting minutes be published in the local newspaper. It would not change the requirement that meeting agendas and other legal notices be printed. Bill sponsors said the change would affect nearly every government entity statewide, except townships, the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public School District which are already exempt.
Neither the lawmakers nor Bennett had an estimate of how much the change would save taxpayers — and cost newspapers. But the bill sponsors did have some anecdotal costs that they reference in their pitch for co-sponsors.
They claim that annual savings would be $12,000 for the Green Bay school district, $3,600 for the city of Wausau, just over $4,400 for La Crosse, $11,000 for Eau Claire and $2,100 for Beloit. And, they say, Outagamie County would save about $6,500 a year while Wood County would save over $13,000 annually.
The measure would have to pass both the state Assembly and Senate — which are controlled by Republicans — and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before taking effect.