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ANDRIST: We need more sunlight

"Democracy dies in darkness" the Washington Post declares every day.

The slogan pretty much defines why we have a week set aside to discuss, promote and celebrate America's special place as a country that values transparency in governments by and for the people.

This week, March 11-17, is Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.

Yet even as we celebrate keeping the lights of democracy turned on, there are hands on the dimmer switch, even here in North Dakota.

A proposal forwarded by the North Dakota Association of Counties would shade some of our treasured sunlight.

At that association's request, the legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee early next month will be discussing a bill draft that would allow local governments to quit publishing minutes of their meetings in their official newspapers and instead squirrel them away on government web sites that are visited by very few people.

The reason for the proposal is to save taxpayers' money. The reality is that very little will be saved. Most local governments pay only a few thousand dollars a year to have their minutes published. All local governments spend much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their general fund on minutes publication.

It's an inexpensive way for our governments to communicate with us.

It's also a way that voters support—time and again.

In North Dakota today, county boards must publish their meeting minutes in their official newspapers. Cities and school districts must ask their voters to decide whether minutes should be published.

What do voters say? In 252 cities across the state in the last election cycle, 73,583 voters said "publish the minutes." Only 13,432 disagreed.

That's 85 percent in favor, an unheard of majority for most any election.

The collective total for 132 school districts was 83 percent in favor, a total any elected official would view with envy.

Consider, too, that a June 2017 study by Pulse Research of Portland, Ore., determined that local newspapers are read at least once a week in 82 percent of North Dakota households.

I don't know about you, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that there aren't nearly that many eyeballs on local government websites.

We also know from the same Pulse survey that North Dakotan citizens prefer to get their public notices in newspapers. Given a choice between newspapers and government websites, 58 percent chose newspapers and 33 percent chose web sites.

So if voters like and support the system we have now and if changing it saves a comparatively small amount of money, why would we want to change? Especially if doing so results in making it more difficult for citizens to access public information and less likely that they'll access it? Especially when websites are subject to failure, hacking and manipulation?

The short answer is there's no need to change.

This minutes proposal may seem like small potatoes, but every small change is a twist of the dimmer switch.

We need more sunlight.

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