2011-04-07 / Editorial

Keeping public notices public

-Michigan Press Association

What if the public doesn’t notice public notices?

That is a likely consequence of legislation being pushed in Lansing that would hide important information about actions being taken by local governments from broad public view. The bills HB 4117, 4319 and HB’s 4474-4477 would allow cities, counties and townships to post public notices about important matters, such as rezoning or special assessment millages, on their web sites - and only on their web sites.

Supposed cost-savings are driving the effort, though many contend that the change may increase costs to local governments. However, a less accessible and less transparent government are what will result, and that is too high a cost. Lawmakers should kill the bills.

Currently, cities, townships, villages and other government units must publicize legal notices in a newspaper “of general circulation.” The notices inform people about upcoming meetings, businesses that might move into their neighborhoods, requests for bids on government projects and other information that directly affects their wallets, property, and communities.

The Michigan Press Association (MPA), the state’s newspaper group, estimates that the cost for legal notices comprises about .05% of government budgets. If governments begin keeping their own permanent legal notice records, as newspapers have done for years and as these bills would demand, there’s going to be a steep price tag. Costs are kept lower by privatizing such tasks, not the other way around.

This isn’t conjecture. Newspapers in New Jersey, facing similar legislation in their state, sought bids for a content document management system of the sort that would be needed to securely protect and maintain notices. Their estimate: $1,200 per town in up-front design and development costs, plus $1,000 a month in web site hosting costs - $12,000 a year to operate. And that doesn’t even account for staff to maintain and monitor these systems. Cha-ching.

It is important to note that maintaining the requirement to publish these notices in independent newspapers does not preclude the local governments from also posting their notices online - something many newspapers are also doing. The Michigan Press Association has created a searchable database of legal ads from a majority of state newspapers.

These important notices should be where people will see them.

Also, leaving governments the task of posting these notices increases the possibility that officials may just hide information they know could outrage the public or they don’t really want people to see. Hence the MPA’s assertion that this legislation would “put public notices where the public won’t notice.”

Another false assumption is that everybody has access to the Internet or relies on it as a primary source of information. Lower income people and seniors rely less on the Web, statistics show, out of habit and because of the digital divide. Not all people living in rural areas have good Internet access.

This legislation is simply a bad idea that won’t deliver the promised savings. But it will deliver a very costly blow to our basic right to know what our government is doing.

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