By Steve Key

Indiana newspaper executives have an assignment for 2017 – this includes publishers, ad directors and editors. Talk to state legislators about the value of public notice advertising.

I know you’re all busy and some of you have multiple state representatives and senators in your area, so I’ll give you until Christmas to finish this homework. I won’t even require a double-spaced report, but put you on the honor system to get it done.

The reason for this assignment is that the pressure is turning up on the preservation of this democratic tradition that pre-dates our country. Richard Karpel of the Public Notice Resource Center reports that 20 state legislatures this year had bills introduced that would effectively eliminate the publication requirement for public notice advertising. Almost all would move the notices to government websites.

Indiana legislators filed no such bill, but the concept took another hit with the passage of H.E.A. 1009. The school financial bill eliminated the requirement for school districts to publish the school bus replacement fund budget and capital projects fund budget while giving notice of hearings on those plans.

Since I knew bill author Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, is a former school superintendent, there was no surprise that he wasn’t sympathetic to HSPA arguments over the value of published public notices. I also wasn’t surprised, but pleased, that bill sponsor Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who used to operate the family’s grocery and has been a friend of newspapers, agreed to remove the offending provision when the bill traveled through the Senate.

Unfortunately, Rep. Cook’s intention won out when the bill’s conference committee version was decided. More ominous to me was the comment made by Sen. Kenley to the Senate Rules Committee as he explained the final version of the bill.

The bill “does eliminate requirement to publish in the newspaper and does require you to go onto the school corporation’s website, which is kind of a breakthrough decision and… it is just a question of when this is going to happen.” Kenley said.

“When we are going to go to these kind of things, it does save pretty significant money on a statewide basis.”

When a former staunch newspaper advertiser says this, you should be concerned.

Legislators hear the steady drumbeat of local and state officials who don’t like to be bothered by the effort to publish public notices. The mantra is it’s a waste of money; nobody reads them, nobody comes to the meetings. Their answer to the question of the public’s right to know is we’ll put it on the website where everybody can see it – knowing that no one will even know to look for most notices.

At best, the truth is most bureaucrats just don’t want to be bothered with having to place the notices, to determine the correct language of the ad, to determine deadlines for placement, collect the proof of publication, and to pay for the ads.

At worst, the sentiment of a Lake County school superintendent explaining to Bill Masterson, then-publisher of The Times (Munster), why she didn’t want to move her school district notices from a small weekly to the large daily, explains the constant attacks on public notice advertising.

“The only thing that happens when we publish public notices is that people come to the meeting and give us crap about what we’re doing, why would I want more people to see it,” Masterson said he was told.

The bureaucrats’ wish for the elimination of publication of public notices blinds them to the public’s desire for its continuation. HSPA has documented public sentiment in past surveys of adult Hoosiers.

Even when told the publication of public notices can cost government units thousands of dollars, 64 percent of the respondents said the notices should continue to be published in local newspapers.

It’s up to you to personally speak to Indiana legislators and make them understand that the public doesn’t want to troll through government websites to learn how elected officials are proposing to spend their tax dollars when that information is now being delivered to their doorsteps.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

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