By FRANK GIBSON
Editor's note: it's Public Notice Week Jan. 18-24--time to remind citizens of the value of Public Notices in representative democratic government.
When governments create or authorize state and local agencies to create new programs, they typically require some measure of public disclosure as a form of public oversight and to make agencies accountable.
As far back as 1789, during the first American Congress, that accountability has come in the form of public notices in independently-published newspapers. Actions of the congress were ordered to be published in three separate newspapers to ensure wide circulation.
The concept eventually extended to commerce as a way to protect property interest, provide due process and consumer protection from certain business entities - foreclosures, bankruptcies or unclaimed property, to name a few.
City councils, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies are required to provide special notices of special meetings, for example, because those notices must list all items to be discussed. Public notices are required for public hearings on land zoning changes, proposed budgets and taxes, certain ordinances, annexations, and when the government plans to use its ultimate police power - the use of eminent domain to take private property.
Public notices are like the third leg of a stool - with the open records and open meetings laws.
Proposals have been made in Tennessee and other states to move those disclosure notices solely to government websites. That would be tantamount to eliminating public notices as they have historically been.
As one commentator in Georgia noted on a similar county commissioners' association proposal: "That would take notices out of plain sight and bury them in the tangle of documents on government-designated websites."
Anyone looking for a public notice would have to know exactly what they are searching for and when and where to look. Instead of going to their local newspaper where they have always gone to see notices, citizens would be left searching for "a needle in a haystack."
Public notices need to be made available as widely as possible. Tennessee newspapers and the General Assembly smartly went in that direction last year.
Tennessee newspapers post every notice printed in the local paper on their local website and on a statewide, aggregate website provided by the Tennessee Press Association. Those extra services are included at no extra cost to the entity placing the notices.
To ensure the notices are easily found, newspapers must link to the notices section from the website homepage. From there they link to the statewide website at www.tnpublicnotices.com. The site is searchable.
The only way to make distribution any wider would require stuffing notices in every mailbox.
Two primary arguments for changing to websites exclusively -- saving government money and reports of declining readership of print newspapers - don't really hold water.
The touted savings never include the costs of maintaining a dependable and secure government website, one that can't be hacked and where there are no guarantees.
Newspaper critics argue there is "a march toward online news with its immediacy and away from print news."
The latest available figures showed that 45% of Tennessee households subscribe to newspapers. That's a base. When newspaper website traffic is added, it is easy to see that many readers migrating from print are migrating to newspaper-run websites. Now they will find notices in both places, plus 1.
The Aspen Times, a newspaper in Colorado, compared its website to the site for the combined local city and county governments. The newspaper site had 4.7 times more monthly users and 8.5 times more monthly page views because readers, taxpayers and voters were coming to the Times and its website for other reasons and interests.
No one has said it better than the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times:
"Newspapers have a long and important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on officeholders and agencies through our news reporting and publication of government notices."
Frank Gibson is public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.