Proposed changes to public notice process threat to 'protection of democracy': Sask. weekly newspapers

The mayor of at least one Saskatchewan community says he's concerned about amendments to legislation that would allow municipalities to bypass requirements to publish public notices in newspapers.

The changes, which would modify three pieces of provincial legislation if approved, would let municipalities post public notices to websites, social media, and municipal newsletters. Currently, municipalities are typically required to post such notices in newspapers.

Those notices include a range of items of public interest, from notice of elections to zoning changes.

The proposed changes don't sit well with Leader Mayor Craig Tondevold.

"It's very important for those people that, like I say, aren't on social media," to keep public notices in newspapers, said Tondevold.

"We tend to assume that everybody has access to computers and if they do have access, they're using social media … and that's not the case."

For those who aren't computer or social media users, the changes would mean "they're not getting the information that we need to get to them in a timely basis," he said.

The amendments, which are currently working their way through the legislative process, would essentially change the Municipalities Act, the Cities Act and the Northern Municipalities Act.

Not all communities have papers: SUMA, SARM

The amendments were requested by the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, which represent the province's urban and rural communities.

The two groups say there are communities where a newspaper doesn't exist and the changes would ensure they have an avenue to distribute information without violating the provincial acts, which specifically outline that public notice must be published in newspapers.

Courtney Markewich/CBC

SUMA president Gordon Barnhart said the amendments are not an attack on newspapers, and added that he's a big newspaper reader himself. 

"Certainly for any community that does have a local newspaper, by all means, they should use that and we're not urging against that," he said. "But if there isn't a newspaper available, then this makes sense that they have other options."

Barnhart also noted it doesn't make sense that a community is required by law to post public notice in a newspaper, even if it means posting in a publication that doesn't serve the community the notice is directed toward.

"There's still the option of using the newspaper if they wish."

Concerns for 'local democracy,' rural Sask.

Steve Nixon, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association, has been lobbying against the proposal, which his organization argues is a threat to an informed public and democracy as a whole.

"Our concern is strictly on the protection of democracy, especially local democracy and primarily in rural Saskatchewan," said Nixon.

He said in many small communities, newspapers are still the best way to get information to the masses. He said he doesn't buy SARM and SUMA's argument that some communities don't have a local newspaper that serves them.

Municipal councils usually decide whether or not a publication serves their community, he said.

"That is a real problem, because a council might say, 'well, we don't have a current newspaper that has our town's name in its masthead, so therefore, we don't have a newspaper' — and that's just blatantly incorrect," he said.

"A lot of newspapers cover multiple towns and rural municipalities."

CBC requested an interview with Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr about the amendments, but it was declined and a statement was provided instead.

"Municipalities know their citizens best and will now have more options to best reach them today and into the future," the statement noted. "Local publications may be the best option for some. Others may opt for a combined approach."

Matthew Howard/CBC

At least one of Saskatchewan's large urban centres has no plans to stop publishing public notices in newspapers.

"Specific to the amendment regarding public notices, the City of Regina is served by a daily newspaper so the city has no immediate plans to reduce the use of newspaper advertising at this time," said a statement from Regina city clerk Jim Nicol.

"We use this as a tool to inform the sizeable number of residents that subscribe to the Regina Leader-Post."

Saskatoon city solicitor Cindy Yelland said that city already uses a variety of methods to provide public notices, including digital distribution and newspaper ads.   "The city supports the idea of allowing municipalities more flexibility," Yelland said in a statement. "However, before making any decisions the city will review the information and seek input from the governance and priorities committee of council." 

Nixon said the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association has already met with former government relations minister Warren Kaeding. He's now requested a meeting with Carr.

The ministry says it's received the request for the meeting and is working on setting up arrangements.