A new bill introduced in the Wisconsin Senate would give local governments the option to stop publishing legal advertisements in local newspapers. Senate Bill 55 would allow local municipalities, school districts and counties to post meeting minutes on their websites instead.

Now, you look at this idea at first blush and think to yourself, ah, that makes sense. We pay for government web platforms anyhow, so why add the extra cost of buying legal ads in the local paper? If we want to review meeting minutes, or check on tax information, all we need do is visit the websites.

But this is a bad idea. For more than one reason.

First off, if legal ads are withdrawn from your local newspapers, it eliminates a one-stop shopping experience that lets taxpayers keep an eye on their local governments.

Instead, taxpayers would face the tedious job of having to surf dozens of websites to track the information down. That’s not fair to the people who are paying the freight. The cost is minor when compared to the value of the taxpayer’s time and effort.

Second, all legal notices published in newspapers in the state of Wisconsin are available and accessible to the public, for free, through WisconsinPublicNotices.org, a searchable web platform maintained by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

And print notices in newspapers can’t disappear with a computer crash or be conveniently altered after they are published at the discretion of a publishing authority.

It puts all legal notices into one online location, and is provided at no cost to local municipalities. At least in theory, that adds another access point for the taxpayer—including those who do not subscribe to the local paper.

If Senate Bill 55 passes the Legislature, it will punch holes in a free source of vital information on how your local governments operate.

Third, hard as it is for most of us to believe, there are people out there who don’t use computers, either because they don’t like them, or they don’t have easy access to the Web. For them, the local newspaper remains an important source of local government information.

Government works best when its functions are transparent and easily accessible. Senate Bill 55 would reduce or eliminate both benefits to the public. The bill should not be passed.

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