Public notices are an open record you don’t have to request
In the public notice section, you can brush up on a city council meeting you couldn’t make it to, preview a ballot for an upcoming election and find out who in town has not paid their taxes.
Editor's note: This is one in a series of news stories and editorials from Forum Communications in support of open government. Sunshine Week, which champions open government and celebrates access to public information, is March 12-18.
GRAND FORKS — Tucked into the classified sections of many daily and weekly newspapers are nuggets of information about the government — public notices.
In public notices, sometimes called legal notices, you can brush up on a city council meeting you couldn’t make it to, preview a ballot for an upcoming election and find out who in town has not paid their taxes. All of this information is an open record that is available to newspaper readers, and required by local and state governments to be published in legal newspapers.
According to the Public Notice Resource Center, a national organization that educates about the importance of providing public notice in newspapers, the concept of public notices predates newspapers — beginning with notices posted in public squares. It dates the first instances of public notices in newspapers to 1665, when the first English language newspaper, The Oxford Gazette, was published.
Today, all 50 states have laws regarding the publication of public notices in newspapers.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, says public notices provide an unfiltered summary of important government actions.
“It’s unfiltered by reporters, editors or government officials,” Anfinson said. “It’s basically just a summary of the information the government has collected as required to present, and it provides great value to the public because it’s remarkably cheap to compile and present it.”
Having public notices published in a newspaper rather than the website of the government agency helps more people see public notices, said Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association.
“It’s rare, unless you are particularly looking for something, that you’re going to go to a government webpage and just browse around, and that’s why it’s good to have things in the newspaper, because that’s what people do — they read the newspaper and browse through it,” McDonald said.
And, because newspapers are a third party, government agencies or businesses posting notices do not have the ability to change a public notice after it is published, meaning public notices cannot be edited after the fact. Newspapers are also easily archivable.
“It maintains and preserves those notices for future reference and there’s no chance they’re going to disappear, be purged, be removed or be altered,” Anfinson said.
Legislation proposing changes to how public notices are handled is introduced every year. Much of the legislation calls for publishing public notices on government websites instead of in newspapers, McDonald said.
“That doesn’t serve the purpose — there’s nothing that stops (governments) from doing that now, in fact, many of them do,” McDonald said.
In North Dakota, public notices are still required to be published in print editions of newspapers, but a bill introduced this session, House Bill 1197, would allow public notices to be published in e-editions instead.
In South Dakota, three bills to change the way legal newspapers are defined have been struck down.
In Minnesota, most of the recent legislation has centered around making public notices easier to read, Anfinson said. This year, the Minnesota Newspaper Association is proposing that legislators change how sample ballots are printed in public notices sections.
“We think it’s essential that public notices be actually helpful, useful, that they work for their intended purpose of informing people about what the government is doing,” Anfinson said.
Public notices found in Forum Communications Co. newspapers:
- Notice of hearing
- Notice to creditors
- Name change
- Assumed name
- Meeting minutes
- Ad for bids
- Election ballots
- Voter/poll information
- School and city budgets
- Financial statements
- Delinquent tax lists
- Foreclosures notices