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By Staff | Mar 1, 2011

To the Editor:

I’m the publisher of an Iowa daily newspaper. As is the case with most American dailies, a corporation owns my newspaper and my corporate owners do not live in my city. Consequently, they require a great deal of accountability from me. I regularly send them the financial and operational information they require so they can see how every penny is spent and so they are aware of every decision I have made.

I welcome this accountability. In fact, I routinely tell my bosses more than they require me to disclose. It’s in my best interests to do so. I have nothing to hide. I figure the more information my bosses have about my operation, the more they will trust that I am managing it properly. Local governments are similar to my newspaper in that their “owners” are not present on a daily basis to observe the decisions that are made and how every dime of their taxpayer dollars is spent. For that reason, every state in the country requires local governments to disclose the details of all financial transactions, budgets and decisions made affecting the “owners”. Public notices are an inexpensive, effective transparency tool to hold local governments accountable to their “owners”.

I currently serve as president of the Iowa Newspaper Association. For years, I have also been a member of the INA’s Government Relations Committee. In each of those years, I’ve watched in puzzlement and dismay as taxpayer-supported groups like the Iowa School Board Association, the League of Iowa Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties and others introduce bill after bill to weaken this vital transparency tool.

During the past few years, bills have been repeatedly introduced to move public notices from newspapers to local government websites. Lawmakers rejected this bad idea for several reasons. First, statewide readership research shows that over half of Iowans have never visited a local government website for any reasonmuch less to look for public notices. Second, many local governments have no website. Third, research shows that public notices are read in newspapers as well as farm or national sports news. Iowans say they want to see notices “pushed” to them in their local newspaper rather than having to remember to go to multiple local government websites to “pull” up this information. Fourth, statewide readership research and Google Analytics show that Iowans prefer to read notices in newspapers by a ratio of 70-1. Finally, and most importantly, turning this transparency tool over to local governments would lead to a perceived if not a real conflict of interest.

Having failed the past few years, the local government organizations are now backing a bill designed to eliminate notices in newspapers over time by financially starving the newspaper that must bear the cost of typesetting, printing and mailing the notices. House Study Bill 72 would require that all notices be published at a maximum $25 fee. Should it pass, I can easily see a scenario where many newspapers would simply refuse to publish them at such a deep financial loss. Then the notices would either go away or be briefly posted on local government websites where few people would see them. Could it be that this is the real point of this legislation?

Local government lobbyists will tell you this bill would save local governments money. What they won’t tell you is that the state sets the rate for publishing public notices and the same rate applies to all newspapers. In the case of my newspaper, the rate for public notices is discounted 78 percent from our newspaper’s average rate. But we publish the notices because we know people read them and because we couldn’t possibly afford to cover all the city council, school board and county supervisors meetings in as much detail as these notices provide.

While it’s true the bill would result in a cost savings for local governments, the savings would be a very tiny fraction of one percent of their budgets. Using figures from the League of Iowa Cities, for example, the average savings of six cities the League used in an illustration to lawmakers would amount to under four one-thousandths of one percent.

In other words, these local government organizations are asking lawmakers to trade an inexpensive and well-read transparency tool to save what amounts to less than a rounding error in their members’ budgets. This is a bad idea that would lead to a distrust of local governments and should be quickly discarded.