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North Dakota legislative panel votes to keep public notices in newspapers

BISMARCK—North Dakota lawmakers of the interim Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to recommend a bill draft to Legislative Management after deleting some amendments that drew concerns over transparency.

Earlier this year, newspaper representatives expressed concerns over an amendment that would have allowed counties to publish their official proceedings online. The other two amendments were for similar changes, not requiring publication of orders and vouchers in counties' minutes and allowing election results to go online, rather than in newspapers.

Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said the result was a win for transparency, but added he suspects the issue may return in the 2019 session.

"I think there's some people who have rational arguments for changing a few things," he said. "They may be rational; they're just not correct."

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who chairs the committee and brought the bill draft, said he thought the changes represented "good policy" while aligning with where most people get their information, such as election results on the North Dakota secretary of state's website.

Moreover, he said the bill draft would have alleviated counties' costs related to newspaper publication, which Andrist said aren't significant: "far less" than 0.1 percent of a county's budget, according to NDNA's research.

Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, said he wasn't in favor of "mandating counties to have to pay for something," but invoked the need for "more transparency."

"We live in a day and age where we need to be as transparent as possible, and that's just my gut feeling," he told the committee, which voted 6-4 to keep the public notices.

Andrist also said publication of notices in newspapers benefits those who don't regularly access the internet, but do read their local, official paper.

"If it's only on the website, you're only going to see if it you've made a decision that you want to go find it," he said. "If it's in the newspaper, you find things serendipitously that you may be not looking for, but you're interested in."

Lawmakers also floated the idea of turning the decision over to county voters, if they would want their public notices published online or in their newspaper. Andrist said the idea "would not be objectionable" since cities and school districts already pose the same question to voters, who repeatedly and overwhelmingly approve of minutes in their newspapers.

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