We’ll be upfront about our concern with a bill removing the requirement the Department of Natural Resources publish notices on air and water quality permits in local newspapers.
Instead of paying to have them printed, the DNR would be able to simply post the notices on the agency’s website.
The Sheboygan Press derives a small portion of its advertising revenue for publishing the notices, so naturally we have a concern about losing this revenue.
But we also have a concern that eliminating the publishing of notices in local newspapers leaves the people who will be affected by the air and water quality issues the permits without one form of access to the information.
These permits are required for companies and businesses that potentially can pollute the air and water through smokestack emissions or water discharges. People living in the area where these companies operate have the opportunity to object to issuing the permit or comment on them through written testimony, or sometimes at public hearings.
Not surprisingly, lobbyists for many groups who are required to get the air and water permits were registered in favor of the bill limiting access to public records.
We think the idea of publishing notices online is a good one and the Internet should be used to get information before the public. Wisconsin has done a pretty good job of posting information on its website — and these sites have been well-received by the public.
But this should not be the sole method for informing the public of what’s going on in Madison.
Wisconsin has a long tradition of requiring all levels government to operate openly. The state also has been a leader in ensuring public access to government meetings and information.
Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett testified on the bill during a recent hearing in Madison. She noted, “… elimination of (the) public notice in the newspaper in favor of a website posting is the fundamental reversal of a basic government responsibility.
“It is government that serves the public, and it is the responsibility of government to ensure proper notification to the public of its actions … and not the other way around.”
Daily and weekly newspapers across the country remain a trusted source of information for many people. Readers rely on their newspaper to not only inform them of community news, but also to inform them about how their government is operating.
The state will save a few dollars by eliminating paid publication of DNR notices, but it will lose a good deal of public trust by reducing public access to information.
It would be a mistake for lawmakers to pass this measure and take away one form of public access to vital information.
— The Sheboygan Press