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FOX 11 Investigates: Should government legal notices still be published in newspapers?

(WLUK) -- Flip open a newspaper and you may find a section of legal notices. They've been around since at least the 1800s.

"It's a system that's worked for a lot of years and it still does work," said Beth Wenzel, fourth-generation owner of The Brillion News. The paper publishes legal notices for several local governments.

The Brillion News reporter Ed Byrne says legal notices benefit everyone.

"For the taxpayer and a citizen to know in advance what his government plans to do, when he doesn't pay attention to it every day of the week, is priceless because it's going to have an impact on him sooner or later," Byrne said.

But that service does come with a cost.

"There are quite a few things that we need to publish in the newspaper," said Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff for Green Bay's mayor. She says last year the city of Green Bay spent $51,144.73 to publish legal notices. The rates are set by the state of Wisconsin.

While that is a tiny fraction of Green Bay's $100-million budget, it still is taxpayer money.

According to a survey by the League of Wisconsin municipalities, in 2015, cities spent an average of $10,979 on legal notices. Villages, which have more flexibility about what needs to be published. spent an average $1,824.

When asked if that is the best way to get information out to the public today, Jeffreys replied, "That's a question for us."

"In the scheme of things, the costs of publishing in the newspaper are negligible," said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Still, he says communities should be able to simply publish notices on their own websites.

"I think the most the cost-effective, efficient way and best way to communicate to the largest number of people would be to use electronic media, online, posting on our websites," Witynski said.

The newspaper industry says not so fast.

"We believe it still works. It's not broken," said Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

She says there's still a value to having the information in print.

"When you publish in the paper, it's been published. It can't be changed. It's unalterable," Bennett said.

Since 2005, the newspaper industry has posted the legal notices on a special website, at no additional cost to taxpayers. Click here to access the searchable public notice archive.

"The primary purpose of public notice is to ensure that there's a check and balance on government. That they are indeed notifying the public of their business and the activities of government," Bennett said.

While newspapers are paid to run the legal notices in print, Bennett says the issue is not about the money.

"It's a very small fraction of their budgets and it's a very small fraction of revenue for our industry as well," she said.

But lawmakers on both sides are looking into possible changes to the law.

Last year, a special committee did not recommend any major changes, but it did spark a lot of conversation.

"We're not trying to do anything to limit the type of information that's available to the public," said State Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere). "In fact, we want to expand that. It's just about delivering that information in a medium that is going to be most appropriate to the audience."

"I think it's time modernize the requirement but to just simply throw it out the door and open those flood gates and simply allow it to be noticed without any real definition, you know, allow that to be noticed online, I think it problematic," said State Rep. Eric Genrich (D-Green Bay).

Last month, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers announced a plan to give local governments more flexibility when it comes to publishing one particular item. Under the proposal, instead of paying to publish the summaries of meetings in the newspaper, local governments could post the information online.

The newspaper association has come out against the proposal.


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