Wright board lays over vote on eliminating county paper

By John Holler

It’s hard to ignore that technological innovations have made the collection and dissemination of news much more instantaneous. For centuries, newspapers have been the primary source of delivering news. But, as social media and internet websites have become the fastest way to get information, newspapers have struggled to maintain their readership in an increasingly paperless world.

But, at the Feb. 18 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, a resolution was put before the commissioners that sought board support of a resolution being championed by the Association of Minnesota Counties to allow a county’s official website to take the place of the official county newspaper – a designation that has been held in some counties for almost a century to document the decisions made by county government.

In a series of “Whereas” paragraphs, among the statements that the board was asked to approve included that citizens expect and demand information in an immediate format, counties have limited resources and utilize tax dollars, counties should have the authority to determine the most efficient way to communicating information, counties publishing their own notices would save money and that “the ability of county websites to provide citizens with up-to-date, detailed information exceeds that of print media.”

In counties where the bill for printing board minutes, legal notices, bid openings, etc. reaches $20,000 or more a year, the idea makes fiscal sense. Critics argue that if government is the only source of the information, the concept of transparency is compromised. Wright County has a unique situation. For more than 20 years, the Howard Lake Herald-Journal has been the county’s official newspaper. The reason is that the paper effectively gives the space to the county for their printing needs.

“They give us an incredible price,” Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala said. “In 2013, all departments combined paid the Howard Lake paper $980.79. That was for everything.”

Asked about the incredible price bid by the Herald-Journal – a penny per column inch of legal type – Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said the Wright County is unique among counties of comparable size.

“There’s no question we get a sweetheart deal,” Sawatzke said. “In counties that have fewer papers bidding, their costs can be pretty significant if the bids are high. But, we’ve received incredible bids from them and it’s been a service to the county.”

Board Chair Christine Husom added that, while technology is clearly dominating how residents receive news, it is age-intensive and lifelong residents of several small towns – in Wright County, statewide and nationwide – rely on their local papers as the base of their readership and the AMC resolution erodes the relationship with local newspapers – whether they be the official county newspaper or not.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t involved in the technology of today that get their news from the local newspapers,” Husom said. “They give a lot of people the news that matters to them and I think we should support that.”

APPROVAL of the resolution was laid over by Commissioner Mark Daleiden, who asked for more time to get AMC’s position on the issue.

In other items on the Feb. 18 agenda, the board:

APPROVED receipt of the December revenue/expenditure budget report. Despite a transfer of $1 million into the general fund from projected revenues last fall, the revenues exceeded expenditures by more than $3 million. Hiivala told the board he will have a final summary of the 2013 budget for the board within a few weeks.

AUTHORIZED Highway Engineer Virgil Hawkins to impose the county’s annual road weight restrictions whenever it is deemed that the roads are susceptible to damage in the spring. Hawkins reported that frost depth has reached a near-unprecedented 72 inches in the county and that the restrictions may last longer into late-April and early-May than is typical. Hawkins also reported that the county is running low on its pre-paid allotment of road salt and is hoping for a mild snow season the remainder of the year because the pre-paid price for road salt is $70 a ton. If a county or city exceeds its limit under the contract, road salt comes with a charge of approximately $200 a ton. The county went over budget on road salt in 2013 and 2014 is not off to a good start.

LAID over a proposal to allow specific county employees to use their personal phone devices on the job with a stipend refund. The board asked that an opinion from the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust be given, as well as a recommendation on how to tighten the language of the pilot project agreement.

REFERRED to the building committee discussion concerning the former sheriff’s administration area in the county courthouse. After analyzing several options, County Coordinator Lee Kelly asked for discussion of the possibility of relocating the assessor’s office into that vacant space.

AUTHORIZED Hawkins and any interested commissioners to attend Transportation Day at the Capitol, which will be held Thursday, March 13 in St. Paul. It will be a chance for local government officials to meet with legislators to discuss transportation issues.