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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Imagine for a moment that you were in charge of designing a system of government in a democratic republic. Naturally, you would want your government to operate in the open, giving citizens full opportunity to participate in the conduct of public affairs.

How would you have the government fulfill its mandate of transparency — by printing information sheets and tacking them to a bulletin board at City Hall?

That might be better than nothing. Our elected leaders would be releasing information about government's affairs, even if that information was likely to be seen only by those whose business or interests brought them to City Hall in the first place.

What happens, though, when the government — or some unit of government, like a school board — wants to minimize the transparency, while still being technically transparent? Might it post the information on Friday afternoon, and then take it down Monday morning? Or maybe that part of City Hall where the bulletin board was located is closed for renovations. Sure, the minutes of the last meeting are still posted somewhere, but how do you make sure people can find them?

The point of this scenario is to make clear that the work of ensuring transparency in government can't be the sole province of government itself. In a little-noticed but important way, that principle is being tested by bills now making their way through the Minnesota Legislature.

Current state law mandates that public notices be published in the official newspaper that serves a given area. A good example is the notice of a school board meeting posted in a local newspaper. But a legislative initiative backed by the Minnesota School Boards Association would change the law from requiring that information be published in a newspaper (or that paper's website) to requiring merely that the information be published on a school board's own website.

The proposal flies in the face of a few known facts: that a school board's website is likely to draw only a fraction of the readers who browse the newspaper; that school boards do not necessarily archive their web content in perpetuity, as most newspapers do; and that websites operated by local units of government may be user-friendly, or may not be. As with the City Hall bulletin board in our scenario, repair work might take a government website offline for a time; when a newspaper's website falters, the staff moves heaven and earth to get it back up and running. Time is money.

Also in the interest of transparency, and speaking of money, we must note that the publication of official notices does generate some revenue for the Star Tribune. Such revenue is generally modest — one school district testified in a Senate hearing a few years ago that it spent $6,000 publishing public notices, out of a total budget of more than $230 million.

More important than the revenue is that the publication of public notices in a newspaper outside the government's control gives the public a way of holding government to account. It puts those notices into a public record that will be preserved, no matter what.

Of the two bills awaiting discussion in a legislative conference committee, one is less objectionable. The House version offers an exception to the publication requirements in districts that have been affected by recent newspaper closures. The Senate bill, however, makes no distinction between districts with a newspaper and districts without one. It would allow all districts to begin publishing their notices in their own publications or websites. Such a sweeping change could soon spread to other units of government.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association operates a website,, that serves as a backup site for the publication of notices in newspapers. That site, or a similar one, may have to play an increasingly important role if small papers continue to disappear. Whatever the ultimate answer, Minnesotans will need a way to peruse public information that is outside the government's control.