By Steve Key
The publication of public notices was under attack this month from an unlikely source – Department of Local Government Finance Commissioner Micah Vincent.
Unlikely because the department has been an advocate of government transparency for several years.
I hope the reason is a lack of understanding of the purpose and value of publication in local newspapers.
That’s what my testimony focused on Dec. 2 before a joint meeting of two legislative committees charged with studying state taxes.
The point of public notice is to put information in places where people not necessarily looking for it are likely to find it. A Department of Local Government Finance website – as Vincent advocated for – is not that place.
The four elements of effective public notice are:
• Distribution by an independent third party
• Historical preservation of the records
•Accessibility to all segments of society
A Department of Local Government Finance website doesn’t meet those standards.
Vincent’s argument that a website is better ignores the preference of the public.
The American Opinion Research poll (from 2004, the most recent Indiana figures) found that 73 percent of Hoosiers said local and state governments should be required to publish public notice advertising in newspapers.
When a follow-up question pointed out that government units must pay for the publication, 73 percent continued to say the notices should be placed in newspapers.
Bob Sigelow of the Legislative Services Agency reported to the committees that the estimated cost of the notice of budget hearing ads was $427,000. That’s an average of $4,641 per county.
In Adams County, for example, that would represent 23 notices for 23 units of government.
State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, expressed surprise that the cost wasn’t greater.
I pointed out that the General Assembly since 1927 has capped the price newspapers can charge government entities for publication of public notices and that cap doesn’t take into account the impact of circulation like normal advertising rates.
Comparing the cost of a 3-inch deep, 1-inch wide notice set in 7 point type in the Pharos-Tribune (Logansport) to comparable dailies in surrounding states would find the Indiana newspaper charging $7.66 compared to a range of $28.35 to $41.58 in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.
The state legislature has mandated a bargain for local and state government units.
Based on Association of Indiana Counties numbers presented to the General Assembly in the 1990s and extrapolated out to account for allowed legislative increases, the average cost of publication of public notices per adult Hoosier would be 41 cents a year.
Even if the association’s number was off 50 percent, the cost would still only be
61 cents, less than the cost of a hamburger off the value menu at Wendy’s or McDonald’s.
Vincent, like some other public officials, declare that posting on a website effectively puts information into the hands of the public. This belief is shared by bureaucrats at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, who dropped the publication of federal air quality notices in favor of website posting.
But IDEM’s webpage containing 133 notices averaged only 105 unique visitors a week over a six-month period when HSPA checked earlier this year.
For comparison, the Rising Sun Recorder in southeast Indiana has a circulation of approximately 1,100. The 2004 poll found that 66.7 percent of Hoosiers recall seeing public notices and that seven out of 10 of those individuals said they read the notices.
Out of that group, seven of 10 said they read public notices always, often or sometimes. That puts public notice advertising readers at 32.7 percent of Ohio County’s adult population of 4,777 (2011 census) – that’s 1,562 adults.
Even if you argue it should only be 32.7 percent of subscribers, that’s 366 Rising Sun Recorder readers.
So putting a public notice advertisement in the largest county newspaper that has the smallest circulation of any county still will get the notice seen by more eyeballs than see it on a state government website.
That shouldn’t be surprising since 62 percent of Hoosiers told pollsters they would be less or much less likely to see public notices posted on government websites.
Website posting effectively hides notices in plain sight.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.