Proposed bill would decrease government transparency in Iowa
Editor's note: State Sen. Dave Rowley of Spirit Lake was one of seven lawmakers who voted against advancing Senate File 546 out of the Ways and Means Committee.
Some members of the Iowa Senate do not think that public notices published in newspapers remain relevant and necessary. A bill filed in the newly formed Technology Committee just over a week ago moved through committee in two days and last week moved through the Ways & Means Committee in one day. Senate File 546 would result in removing a major component of government transparency. This legislation would require legal notices to be posted on a website controlled by the very government those legal notices are designed to oversee, and notices would not be required to published in a local newspaper.
This is the wrong move today, tomorrow and for the future. Government transparency is more important than ever. In truth it is critical.
While the Dickinson County News and other Iowa newspapers have an economic interest in seeing that the public notice publishing requirement remains, the issue goes far beyond a few dollars. Maintaining the legal requirement to publish government actions and meetings in local newspapers is crucial for ensuring accountability and keeping the public informed of important information that affects people’s lives. And it is the job of our local newspapers to serve as a check on government, not the government to check itself.
The proposed savings under the guise of modernization would come at a very high cost to Iowa’s communities.
While many people now browse digital platforms for information – including dickinsoncountynews.com – not everyone has access to the internet or the technological know-how to navigate online platforms. And the staggering amount of information available online, representing every viewpoint, degree of accuracy, hidden agendas and motivations from every philosophy and side of the political spectrum, makes it more and more likely public notices posted online would be lost among the chaff. Worse, they may be vulnerable to manipulation or not easily accessible through search algorithms.
By publishing public notices in newspapers, government bodies can ensure that critical information is available to everyone in a format that has stood the test of time for accuracy and accessibility. It requires governments provide timely information for citizens to participate in their government. The notices are appearing in the communities in or very near where the decisions are made. Public notices cover a range of activities – bids and leads for public projects, minutes from government meetings, foreclosures, petitions, election information, water quality reports and other information that is important to citizens and vibrant communities.
The basis for public notices published in newspapers remains as important as ever:
• Requiring an independent, third-party to publish the notices in accordance with the law helps prevent government officials from hiding information they prefer the public not to see. The government cannot be in charge of holding itself responsible. A public notice must be published in a forum independent of the government. As an independent and neutral third party, a newspaper has an economic and civic interest in ensuring that the notice delivery requirements are followed.
• Publishing the notice in a newspaper ensures that the information is widely accessible to the public. Unlike social media or other online platforms, newspapers are trusted sources of information that are available to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have access to the internet or social media accounts. This helps to ensure that all members of the public have an equal opportunity to be informed and involved in government decision-making.
• A public notice must be archived in a secure and publicly available format. Newspapers have always fulfilled this requirement because a public notice published in a newspaper is already archivable and accessible. This is particularly important for notices that contain information about government decisions and actions that impact individuals and communities for years to come. Requiring governmental bodies to publish legal notices in newspapers ensures that this information is always accessible.
• The public must be able to verify that a legal notice is not altered after being published. In a newspaper notice, an affidavit is provided by the publisher, which can be used in an evidentiary proceeding to demonstrate that a true copy was published as well as the exact wording that was used. Legal notices published in newspapers are subject to public scrutiny and can be easily monitored by journalists or concerned citizens. This guarantees that governmental bodies are held accountable and acting in the best interests of their constituents.
• Community newspapers have established relationships with readers and have a deep understanding of the issues and concerns that matter most to them. When public notices appear in newspapers, government bodies can tap into these relationships.
• Newspapers have a long history of serving as watchdogs for their communities, holding local officials accountable and shining light on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. By requiring government bodies to publish public notices in newspapers, we are ensuring that these important watchdog functions are preserved and that the public has access to information that might otherwise be hidden from view.
• Many newspapers also publish the public notices on their websites and nearly all public notices across the state are also uploaded to a centralized website at iowanotices.org, a site run by newspapers at no additional cost to government or taxpayers. It is available for those who prefer accessing an electronic version.
There may be parts of the country where newspaper readership is receding, but not in Iowa. Iowa has 241 community newspapers with one or more newspapers in every county. Market research conducted in 2022 showed 84 percent of Iowa adults read local print or digital newspapers. And newspaper readers are more engaged in their community. Newspapers reach 93 percent of Iowans who report, “I feel that I have a responsibility to help share the future of my community.”
It is true that newspapers charge a nominal fee, set by Iowa law, for publishing legal notices. This is a very small price for freedom, as it is typically under 1 percent of any government body’s spending. All Iowans should demand more scrutiny of government affairs, never less.
While the proposed bill does not prohibit local government bodies from publishing public notices in newspapers, it removes the current requirement for doing so. Removing the legal requirement would most certainly result in local governments discontinuing all public notice publications in their local newspapers. But the long-term costs communities and citizens would pay far exceed the price paid by government bodies to publish legal notices in newspapers.
We believe that requiring governmental bodies to continue publishing legal notices in local newspapers is crucial for ensuring transparency, accountability and accessibility in government decision-making. Newspapers – especially Iowa newspapers – remain a trusted source of information that is widely accessible and easily searchable.
As a newspaper, we strongly urge Iowa’s senators to vote “no” on this short-sighted bill.
As should all Iowans.
This editorial was prepared in cooperation with members of the Iowa Newspaper Association.