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Newspapers: Legal documents that protect citizens

Posted on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm

By Mike MacLaren

Paying for baseball umpires is more important than protecting your property from foreclosure.

That is in essence what elected officials across the country are saying as they push for “cost saving” legislation to allow government to post notices of legal actions on government-run websites.

“Baseball umpires? … You can’t be serious,” you say.

I am serious; I’m also worried. You should be too. Here’s why:

Government officials say such legislation saves money that could be spent on police and fire fighters. But there are government programs that cost more than publishing these notices, such as umpires for city baseball leagues. It’s a fact: the City of Niles (MI) spends more each year for baseball umpires than for publishing legal notices in the local newspaper.

But there’s a larger issue at stake. These public notices are legal documents. News-on-paper notices give citizens an independent, authentic and verifiable record of what their government has done. If questions arise regarding ordinances, actions or any other municipal decision, courts will not accept a copy — they want the original document as proof. This news-on-paper publication requirement was put in place to protect public and municipal officials so that there’s no question that a document had been doctored.

Requiring legal notices to be published in a venue independent of government is a form of insurance for taxpayers. How can you get “beyond the shadow of doubt” proof of the contents of a legal document from a website that can be altered with a click of a mouse, or hacked?

When was the last time you visited your local government website? Is it something you do weekly?

By contrast, according to American Opinion Research:

Eighty-seven percent of Michigan Adults (6.7 million) read a Michigan newspaper during an average seven-day period.

Let me be clear: Under the guise of saving money, such “pull public notices out of a newspapers and post them on a government web site” legislation will make it easier for municipalities to have special meetings, make assessments and other important decisions with nearly no knowledge or input from the community. Yes, newspapers charge to publish these notices. More often than not, they are done at cost. But without these notices, more than a few community newspapers face the specter of shutting down. So on top of posting these public notices where the public won’t notice, there may be no local paper to report on the results of the actions.

— Mike MacLaren is executive director of the Michigan Press Association in Lansing.