Okay, class. Your attention please.
Today’s refresher lesson will be on public notice advertising. You know, those grey text boxes you regularly publish that have been submitted by local government units and attorneys most of the time, but sometimes by regular citizens.
Those public notices are more than a reliable revenue stream, they are one of the three pillars supporting government transparency. The Public Notice Advertising Law (I.C. 5-3-1) requires state and local government units to publish notices in local newspapers to inform citizens of certain actions taken or contemplated by those government units. It complements the Open Door Law (I.C. 5-14-1.5) and the Access to Public Records Act (I.C. 5-14-3).
Public notices are time sensitive. Statutes specify how often a notice must run and when it must run in relation to the action that sparks the requirement for a published notice. Make sure whoever processes public notices understands that the failure to properly publish them on the correct days could require a government unit to reschedule a hearing or delay a business from getting a permit by a month or more. This is an area where customer service is imperative.
Democratic self-rule is based on the premise that information about government must be accessible to the electorate to enable them to make well-informed decisions about those who represent them. Public notice laws in the U.S. have recognized newspapers as the best means to provide that access.
Public notices also have served a vital role to preserve the right of due process guaranteed by federal and state constitutions. Due process protects American’s fundamental rights from arbitrary or wrongful violation and affords citizens an opportunity to be heard before the state’s judicial system restricts those rights.
Public notification not only informs the individual or entity most directly affected, but also the general public, which has an interest in knowing how government power is wielded.
Public Notice in Indiana: In Indiana, the publication of public notices predates statehood. Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison offered $500 to a printer who would start a newspaper in Vincennes so that he could disseminate the laws of the territory. New Jersey native Elihu Stout accepted the challenge, transporting a printing press by boat and ox cart to the territorial capitol and printing the first edition of the Indiana Gazette on July 4, 1804 – fifteen years before Indiana became a state. Today’s Vincennes Sun-Commercial traces its lineage to Stout’s newspaper.
In addition to understanding the importance of publishing notices, advertising staffs need to understand the pricing structure for public notices. In 1927, Indiana’s General Assembly passed legislation that caps what a newspaper may charge state and local government units for publishing their notices.
The payment system is based on a line rate derived from a formula whose factors include the column width, point size of the text and a common rate. The formula incorporates picas, points, Em spaces and a printer’s square – terms I wager very few in your operation are familiar with 93 years after the law went into effect. Fortunately, the state Board of Accounts every year creates charts based on column widths provided to it by HSPA that relieves you of the necessity to solve the formula. Your staff can find the chart that matches your column width and the line rate for one to four publications of the notice has been calculated.
(If you don’t have the 2020 charts or ever have a question about rates, just reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 624-4427.)
While the legislature controls how much you may charge local or state government units, notices placed by private parties – attorneys, citizens, businesses – does not fall under that state-mandated cap. You control that rate as you control what you charge for display advertising. Note that Indiana also can’t mandate what you charge federal government units.
The key to the legislative mandate is who the ultimate payer is for the notice. Does the money come from taxpayers to the state or local government unit. This means the sheriff’s sale (mortgage foreclosures) is an important exception. While the sheriff is responsible for seeing that a notice is published (either through his office or by an attorney representing the financial institution that is foreclosing on the property), the cost of the notice is taken from the top bid at the public sale as reimbursement to the sheriff for the cost of the auction. So, you can price the placement of sheriff’s sales as you would the opening of an estate or name change placed by a citizen or attorney.
Another confusing area is utilities. Some are government-owned and can claim the state-set rate. Others are public corporations, which are not eligible for the government discount.
When setting a price, HSPA urges you not to abuse a monopoly position you may have concerning eligibility to carry public notices. Abusive pricing in the past has led to legislation to eliminate the publication of a notice or all notices.
Your responsibility to publish a notice doesn’t end with your print edition. Indiana law requires you to also post the notice on your website on the same day that you publish it. To maximize the accessibility to the public, HSPA recommends you put public notices outside your paywall so anyone can find them.
HSPA also has created a website (www.indianapublicnotices.com), which aggregates public notices published throughout the state as a service to Hoosiers who may want access to notices beyond their home county. We can only populate this website with your help. HSPA member newspapers have agreed to add the nonsense code “hspaxlp” to every public notice and upload pdfs of your pages to a FTP site. Our vendor, Tecnavia runs those pdfs through a program to make the text word searchable. It then identifies pages that contain the code and moves those pages to the HSPA-operated website where they can be searched.
To have an effective website, it’s imperative that your staff understands that all issues need to be uploaded. If your paper doesn’t use pdfs, we can arrange other systems to collect your pages. The lack of your newspaper on the public notice website can hamper HSPA’s efforts to preserve public notice publication requirements in newspapers.
I also urge your newspaper to illustrate the value of public notices to your community. If your editors and reporters don’t read the notices, how do you expect readers to see their value.
I’d love to see newspapers regularly use a public notice as the original source for a story and refer to the printed public notice published in that edition. This would help cultivate the habit of readers to view notices and appreciate the role they play in our democratic process and our judicial process.