Public notices make citizens watchdogs
With efforts expected in the legislature again this year to move public notices from newspapers to government-controlled websites, Tennesseans should be concerned about the implications of that change for them and their right to know.
There are obvious reasons why these notices need to be distributed as broadly as possible and delivered by the most independent and reliable source available. Statewide and sometimes obscure local government websites don’t fit the bill.
Public notices let citizens serve as watchdogs on their governments.
The need for government transparency was established in the very first session of Congress in 1789, when it ordered that all bills, orders, resolutions, and congressional votes be published in at least three newspapers. It did not start its own newspaper.
The General Assembly has approved the creation of more than 450 local governments through the years. It also has passed laws requiring officials to disclose certain information to the general public. To ensure that vital information is communicated widely to the public, those same laws require notices be placed in newspapers of general circulation in the community.
Some notices deal with actions already taken – a decision to appropriate dollars, for example, to a local non-profit or private entity to provide some public service. The theory is that more eyes will prevent self-dealing or fraud.
Other notices deal with actions or decisions that are still to be made: requesting competitive bids for public contracts, announcing public hearings on budgets, tax hikes, or zoning changes that might allow some undesirable activity down the street and have some effect on property values or the serenity of your neighborhood.
The record is full with examples of government contracts being steered to friends and relatives of some in government by not advertising for bids. There are dozens of examples of actions being taken without the items being placed on the agenda.
Some state and local officials argue that moving notices to government websites will save money, although in one recent example the savings would have had a negligible effects, a fraction of 1% of the city’s total budget.
There are a number of other reasons why moving notices to government websites does not make sense.
Public opinion surveys in other states show that four out of five people surveyed believe that publishing notices in independent newspapers is a worthwhile use of public dollars.
A recent national survey by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute found that 80% of respondents said they had never visited a local government website.
The latest research by Connected Tennessee, an organization that promotes the expansion of broadband access, found that 71% of households here had never interacted with a local government website. Another ConnectTN survey found almost two-thirds of computer owners visit newspaper and news websites, second only to Google.
A 2012 survey in Arkansas found that two thirds of those surveyed said they preferred to receive notices via newspapers; 21% preferred direct mail and only 12% picked online or the Internet.
Newspapers have to meet certain requirements before they can carry public notices, including wide circulation, news and information content and frequency of publication. A majority of newspapers – including The Elk Valley Times – now post notices on their website at no additional charge.
Conversely, a state report last year showed that more than one third of 455 local governments do not have websites. It estimated that it would take $7 million to $10 million to build those sites.
The Public Notice Resource Center in Arlington, Va., says putting notices on government websites would remove any independent proof of publication. The center also noted the efficiency and value of using an independent and neutral third party that has an economic and civic interest in ensuring the notice is delivered and that the law is followed.
Proponents of using government websites have argued that newspaper readership has declined while more Americans are getting their information from the Internet.
Recent newspaper readership surveys by the national Scarborough Research USA suggest that while fewer U.S. adults may be reading the print version of newspapers, they are migrating to newspaper websites. They found that 68% of U.S. adults reported reading a printed newspaper, an electronic edition of the paper or a newspaper website within the previous week.
When Scarborough Research broke down the readership numbers by demographic it found: 76% of people over age 55 read a printed newspaper, e-edition, or the newspaper’s website in the last week. That compared to 72% of those over age 35 and 58% of 18-34-year-olds.
A major concern of citizen and good government groups is that notices be accessible to all segments of society, including elderly, rural, and economically disadvantaged citizens who are less likely to have computers, regular access to one, or the skills to perform complex Internet searches.
AARP says that 40% of seniors over 50 are not comfortable using a computer. That probably explains why three-fourths of U.S. adults over age 55 read newspapers regularly.
By Frank Gibson,
Public Policy Director,
Tennessee Press Association