Public notice advertising debate continues

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Office of Air Quality moves notifications from print to online

HSPA’s Steve Key outlined the elements of effective public notice recently before the state Environmental Quality Service Council.

The HSPA executive director and general counsel spoke about the need for public notices to be distributed by an independent third party, be in a form that can be archived, be accessible to the general public, and be verifiable as to accuracy.

Key said publication of notices in newspapers meets that criteria while listing them on the Internet falls short.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Air Quality recently moved to list public notices on its website instead of in newspapers.

Key used Ohio County’s Rising Sun Recorder as an example to compare IDEM’s website reach to that of public notices in a newspaper. He chose the Recorder because it’s the largest weekly newspaper that serves the least-populated county in Indiana.

Taking the best total from the IDEM public notices webpage – 129 unique visitors in a week – and the worst-case scenario for newspapers – 32.7 percent of the Recorder’s circulation according to an American Opinion Research survey about who reads public notices, which is 366 readers – newspapers beat the website in visibility to Ohio County’s population by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.

That margin only increases in more populated counties while the number of unique visitors to the website remains static.

Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, urged IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly to include public notices both online and in newspapers.

Also testifying on the issue was Glen Pratt, a former IDEM official who is now a citizen advocate during the legislative session. Pratt said he thought the change was an attempt to hide notices from public view.

Other testimony came from Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. He coordinated a letter signed by 17 environmental and citizen organizations and HSPA voicing concern with the IDEM decision to move notices about environmental issues from the newspaper to the Internet.

He pointed out the opposition of the 18 groups and reiterated the concern over access to the notices. He pointed to a Congressional Record report that showed four out of 10 Americans don’t have high-speed Internet access.

Kharbanda also expressed concern over the precedent this policy would set and how it could lead other government units to seek to end public notices published in newspapers.

Rep. David Wolkins, R-Warsaw, who chairs the Environmental Quality Service Council, questioned the reach of newspapers.

Again using the Rising Sun Recorder as an example, Key said that the newspaper reached nearly 50 percent of the adult population in Ohio County (by using its circulation multiplied by two since the average newspaper copy is read by 2.1 people). The maximum number reading the IDEM website would only be 2.2 percent of the county’ population.

Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, was critical of HSPA’s position that more people have access to public notices in newspapers than on the IDEM website.

He questioning how many people would spot the IDEM information since newspapers run many public notices. He also expressed the belief that Internet postings would provide greater notification because they can be seen worldwide.

Key pointed out that the Pew Research Center reported that only 26 percent of those older than 60 use the Internet and that MediaPost reported only four out of 10 of minorities regularly use the Internet.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 41 percent of U.S. farms are without Internet access. For instance, it’s expected that in 15 years the Amish will make up more than half the population of LaGrange County in northern Indiana.

Representatives of the 18 organiza­tions are scheduled to meet about the issue with Easterly on Oct. 18.

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