Help HSPA improve public notices

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By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

Indiana newspapers have an opportunity to improve information that local government agencies provide Hoosiers about the budget process.

State Sen. Brandt Hersh­man, R-Buck Creek, asked the Hoosier State Press Association to present ideas on making the annual public notice of budget hearings more meaningful to readers.

We’re talking about the notice that’s published twice prior to a public hearing where citizens can give input on budgets prior to their approval by the governing bodies of various local government units.

Hershman’s invitation flowed from a discussion HSPA initiated because of one of the topics assigned for interim study to the Commission on State Tax and Financing Policy, which Hershman chairs.

The committee will study “the benefits of and limitations resulting from the publication of budgets, tax rates, and levies by political subdivisions.”

Hershman said the committee would look at the content of public notices and how the notices are distributed.

This means HSPA will present arguments promoting the value of newspaper publication versus alternate distribution – read: Internet only.

HSPA reminds lawmakers that newspaper publication of public notices provides an independent third party, accessibility, verifiability and the ability to archive.

But those arguments prove useless unless notices communicate understandable and useful information to readers.

For example, when I was a reporter (admittedly decades ago) I recall writing stories on huge rate increases advertised in government budgets. The stories invariably included quotes from government officials saying the real rate would not be close to what they advertised.

The public notice had to be published before the local government knew what the assessed property value would be, so officials would put the highest tax rate possible because the law allowed them to reduce the advertised rate but not increase it if there was an unexpected fall in property assessments.

How can we improve public notices today so Hoosiers get an accurate forecast of tax rate changes?

Has your experiences in making sense of budget notices illustrated the need for change?

Have complaints you’ve heard from public officials or the public pointed to improvements needed in public notices?

If so, please pass on your suggestions to me at skey@hpsa.com.

Should public notice information be presented in a better format? If so, what?

Should some information be eliminated because it’s meaningless?

Should other information be added that better illustrates government budgets?

Help HSPA assist the legislative effort to make the local government budget process more transparent and improve Hoosiers’ ability to impact the budget process.

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My previous column asked how long would it take the Morristown Town Council to rescind its ban on audio and video recording at its public meetings. Answer: Not long.

At its very next meeting officials eliminated the ban after a reporter informed members that the Open Door Law guarantees the public the right to “observe and record” the proceedings.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.

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