Gibson: Celebrate Public Notice Week
By FRANK GIBSON
Residents of Mt. Judea, Ark., woke up one morning recently to learn that their small community is about to become host to a hog farm - population 6,503 hogs.
"What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it," Gordon Watkins, a nearby farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, told the Arkansas Times in Little Rock.
State and local government officials had already approved the facility and said the public notice of the permit review process was "legally sufficient." However, the instant replay showed the only notice the state gave was on the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's website. The only recourse left for Mt. Judeans is a lawsuit.
Stories like this abound all over the country, including in the Volunteer State. Despite that, numerous bills have been filed in the state legislature here in recent years to allow city councils and school boards among others to stop placing notices in newspapers and instead put them on their own websites.
Stories like this also prompted newspapers nationwide to create Public Notice Week to bring attention to public notices and how important they are to our democracy. It's been that way since 1789. Open meetings and records laws as well as public notices allow citizens to know about and participate in their government.
Usually there is little to celebrate because bills to move or eliminate notices are always around. Some may surface yet in 2014, but this year is different. There is something worth celebrating.
Starting April 1, Tennessee newspapers which print public notices also will post them on the newspaper's local website and upload them to a statewide aggregate website, www.tnpublicnotice.com, operated by the Tennessee Press Association. A majority of TPA's 121 member newspapers has been doing both for some time.
TPA made a commitment and proposed legislation last year to formalize it. It requires newspapers to do the double posting - triple if you consider print - at no additional charge and provides that newspapers make notices easier to find with special links on their website homepages.
TPA executive director Greg Sherrill said the new law "ensures the best of both worlds."
"Our leadership realized that an increasing number of our readers choose to receive their news and information from newspaper websites, which are consistently among the most-trafficked sites within any given community," Sherrill said. "By making sure that notices are also available on these sites, newspapers can make public notices accessible to the widest audience possible. While online notices are convenient for many readers, they lack the security, durability, and ability for archival that the printed notices provide."
Proposed changes here and elsewhere usually center on arguments that ending the practice of advertising notices will save the government money, but random checks show those expenses rarely exceed one-tenth of 1 percent of the agency's budget.
Open government advocates question whether moving notices exclusively to government websites, in effect, eliminates public notice because it certainly removes the independent quality.
Government officials everywhere argue that the issue is about newspaper revenue. Newspapers acknowledge the revenue argument, but government officials don't acknowledge how few people visit their websites. One survey last year showed almost 150 city and county governments didn't have websites.
Proposals have contained no real standards for government websites. Bills here and in Pennsylvania provided they had to be available only 90 percent of the time. Citizens without computer access could get hard copies of notices at City Hall. Proponents didn't explain how citizens would know when and where to ask.
Public opinion surveys in other states show that super majorities of taxpayers believe that the independent publication of public notices is worth the expense.
Webster's defines the word "optimum" as "the point at which the condition, degree or amount of something is the most favorable or advantageous." The new law and the services it requires newspapers to provide are about as favorable and advantageous as you can get short of a direct notice to every resident.
Opponents of the change, admittedly some newspaper editorial writers, argue that notices should stay in the newspaper where the public already knows where to find them, and some previous proposals here and elsewhere have addressed that issue.
The solution: place an advertisement in the newspaper telling citizens about the government website.