Wright County Board delays official newspaper resolution

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.
During 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.
He added: “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 Chairwoman 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.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.