Hoosiers need public notices to stay informed

Key Steve
Steve Key

By Steve Key

An Indiana school superintendent recently complained to the local newspaper publisher about the cost and effectiveness of public notice advertising while delivering his annual school financial report.

The grumbling touches on both misconceptions about public notice advertising and fallacies of the argument for posting, not publishing, the notices.

The superintendent argued that a larger percentage of his students’ parents have access to the Internet than the percentage that subscribes to a newspaper.

He also said the amount spent on publication of notices such as the annual financial report could be “utilized to directly impact the learning opportunities of our students.”

Local government officials often articulate similar beliefs, and I think they are wrong. 

The superintendent who recently spoke out forgets that public notice advertising is designed to reach the entire community, particularly regarding the expenditure of tax dollars.

Parents aren’t the only ones with a stake in school districts.

Everyone who pays taxes should be concerned with the operation of public schools, from the size of budgets to how well students are prepared for the next step in their lives, be it college or the workforce.

He also confuses “access to the Internet” with how many people will take the time to routinely check the websites of various local governments.

Surveys conducted in Indiana and other states in recent years demonstrate that citizens (73 percent in Indiana) want government units to publish public notices in their local newspapers.

When a follow-up question pointed out that governments must pay for the publication with tax dollars, there was no drop in those who continued to say government should publish the notices.

In Indiana, 62 percent of Hoosiers polled said they would be less likely or much less likely to see public notices if they were posted on the Internet rather then published in local newspapers.

Logic holds that Hoosiers are more likely to see public notices in newspapers that they welcome into their homes and businesses rather than on websites that would require them to search for the information now delivered to their doorsteps.

While the superintendent might not appreciate the value of public information, the majority of Hoosiers place a value on receiving that information and don’t mind that a miniscule portion of government budgets goes toward making the information easily accessible.

The Kentucky Press Association a few years ago determined that the cost of publishing public notice advertisements per citizen was equivalent to the cost of a Big Mac each year, a price most are willing to pay to know how government decisions will impact their community.

I’m also guessing the superintendent who complained has no idea what a bargain public notice advertising is in Indiana.

The maximum rate papers can charge has been set by the Indiana General Assembly since 1927, and newspapers have not fared well compared to the rate of inflation over the past 80-plus years when it comes to legislatively approved rate increases.

The Public Notice Adver­tising Law (IC 5-3-1) also prohibits newspapers from charging state and local governments more than the lowest rate they charge private citizens or businesses to publish advertising.

Newspapers must continue to educate Hoosiers on the connection public notice advertising has to government transparency.

It should be seen on an equal footing with the state’s public access laws.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.