Hoosier State Press Association
Every January, I brace for new attacks on the philosophy of public notice advertising in the General Assembly.
Some attacks have been broad; bills totally eliminating all published notices. Many are specific–such as the elimination of the publication of proposed budgets by local government in 2014.
All attacks have one thing in common–they don’t originate from a groundswell of support for Internet publication by the public. Rather the vast majority of attacks originate from the government agencies tasked by Indiana law to inform the public of its actions.
Local government lobbying units, such as the Accelerate Indiana Municipalities and Association of Indiana Counties have pushed for an elimination of public notice advertising. More recently, the attacks have come from state government agencies, such as the Department of Local Government Finance.
Meanwhile, public support remains strong for the required publication of notices.
American Opinion Research surveyed Hoosiers’ views on public notices both in 2004 and 2014. It found in 2014 that 61 percent of adult Hoosiers read or have seen public notice advertising in newspapers. There was only a slip of 3 percent, down from 64% in 2004, of those who read or see public notice advertising.
Even more Hoosiers support the publication of public notices than the number that report seeing them in the newspaper. The percent that support keeping the public informed through public notice advertising was 85% in 2014.
When it was pointed out to those taking the survey that taxpayers pay for the publication and it can cost government units several thousands of dollars, support for the publication of notices only dropped to 61%–that’s 3.1 million adult Hoosiers.
Why should newspaper publication continue to be the format for public notice rather than government websites?
Public notice should be given through an independent entity to ensure the notice is given in a timely manner. It serves as a check on government officials who would prefer that citizens don’t show up for public meetings and ask questions.
Public notices should be archivable. With a hard copy in hand, there’s no question as to when the required public notice was presented to the public.
Public notices should be verifiable. Newspapers are self-authenticating in the courts. You know when the newspaper was printed and distributed to the general public. Websites are subject to cyber-attacks or can be manipulated by the government entity to make notices hard to find.
Public notices should be accessible to all segments of the citizenry. Newspapers remain a bargain for subscribers and non-subscribers generally can find a newspaper at work, in the library or through a neighbor/friend.
The added value to newspaper publication is that it places public notices in the hands of Hoosiers who aren’t necessarily looking for the information. Most people don’t know when annual financial reports for local government are published, or tax rate charts or school performance reports, but they find this information while reading their newspaper. Hoosiers aren’t going to routinely check multiple government websites on a weekly basis to see whether anything has been posted that will directly impact or interest them.
Many bureaucrats find it a pain to publish public notices. They have to take into account the deadlines of weekly newspapers and count back the appropriate number of days to meet notice publication deadlines. They have to retrieve tear sheets as proof of publication and cut checks to pay for the publication.
What’s the reward for this work by government officials? Citizens attend meetings or make phone calls to express their opinion on controversial actions under consideration.
It would be so much simpler if the public didn’t bother them so they could act as they see fit. Citizen involvement is a pain for bureaucracy.
That’s why Hoosier State Press Association expects bills to be filed every year that impact government transparency.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.