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Editorial: ND lawmakers should reject bill to weaken public notice requirements

Democracy is not a spectator sport. Maintaining a healthy democracy requires the active engagement of citizens—well informed citizens. A hallmark of our governmental system is the value we place on keeping citizens apprised of what their governments are doing in their name. By law and by custom, local governments are obligated to keep citizens informed. This takes various forms. One of the most vital is publishing public meeting minutes and agendas as well as public notices that run in legal advertisements.

It's often said, in the context of governmental accountability, that sunshine is the best disinfectant. But a draft bill under consideration by the North Dakota Legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee—which will be reviewed in a meeting on Monday—would block some rays of sunshine. The bill would allow county commissioners to choose whether to publish minutes of their meetings in their official newspapers or on an official county website. That's a departure from current law, which requires that minutes be published in the official county newspaper.

The draft bill would further damage easy public access to information by declaring that orders or vouchers for payment of bills do not need to be published in the government body's official minutes. Current law is silent on that point, but decisions by attorneys general have maintained that the bills must be included in the minutes.

The draft bill also would allow county commissioners to choose whether to publish the abstract of votes from each election in their official newspapers or on the official county website. Under current law, vote abstracts must be published in the official county newspaper.

If adopted, these steps would significantly erode citizens' access to information about the actions of their local governments. Passing this draft bill would be to act against the wishes of their constituents. In a survey last year, 42 percent of North Dakotans said they were most likely to look for public notices in newspapers; only 18 percent said the internet, among other options. Here's a crucial point: Given a choice between newspapers or government websites, newspapers are the overwhelming choice: 58 percent chose newspapers, while 33 percent chose government websites, while others preferred direct mail or did not answer.

Skeptical of polls? Look at election results. Every four years, by law, North Dakota voters decide whether the minutes of their city governing board should be published in the city's official newspaper. In the last election, in 2016, the collective vote in 252 cities was resoundingly in support of publication: 85 percent in favor, 15 percent opposed.

Clearly, if lawmakers are following the will of their constituents, they will let this wrongheaded and corrosive bill draft die in its crib.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.