Few would argue the importance of government units being prudent when spending taxpayer money. Their efforts to find less-expensive ways to accomplish the same task only works, though, when the integrity of the goal is maintained.
Every year, like clockwork, legislators in the General Assembly introduce bills that would change state law requiring publication of public notices in newspapers of record for the communities they serve.
Last week, House Bill 1498, which would allow online-only posting of notices, passed out of the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform on a 10-3 vote. Among those approving the measure were two Southern Indiana committee members, Republican Reps. Karen Engleman of Georgetown and Zach Payne of Charlestown.
Why spend the money to publish notices in the local paper when government entities can toss them up on their own websites and pay only the cost of a clerk’s time to type and post?
Cheaper, they argue. Cheapened, the News and Tribune contends.
Some government websites aren’t routinely updated and carry inaccurate or outdated information. Public notices must be published accurately and on a specific time schedule — no exceptions and no excuses.
For the units of government that contract with outside vendors to keep their websites up-to-date, the added work associated with content creation, editing and publication of public notices could cost more than what they pay newspapers, which discount the cost of publication of that content.
And it still does nothing to increase access opportunities.
The reality is that people read a newspaper and its website, both access points for public notices, far more than they log onto government websites or peruse bulletin boards outside offices and meeting rooms inside buildings where few citizens tread.
Specific to the News and Tribune, daily subscribers on average number 7,200. That subscriber base is multiplied by the number of people in each household who read the newspaper.
Online readership at the newspaper’s website is robust. In January, alone, newsandtribune.com recorded over 650,000 page views. No local government website likely comes close to that many page views.
Were all the people who tapped the newspaper website reading the public notices? Most certainly not. But some were. And the notices were readily accessible to them all.
Access is a key component to informing citizens when government action directly affects them. It’s doubtful that any of us is not affected, personally or professionally, by multiple types of public notices, which are:
• Citizen participation notices published by all levels of government include notices of hearings, financial reports, tax rates, land and water use, election dates and polling places, school performance reports, annexation or zoning and capital improvements.
• Private or commercial notices published by government, citizens, or businesses include unclaimed property, property tax sales, bid requests and requests for proposals and permit approvals.
• Court notices of pending legal action or court rulings include mortgage foreclosures (sheriff’s sales), name changes, probate filings, divorces and orders to appear in court.
Public notices aren’t obscure filings; they are notices of important matters that directly affect Hoosiers. People shouldn’t have to go hunting through government websites, just in case there’s something somewhere they need to know, and if they did, where do they even start?
Those empowered as government officials should be fiscally responsible. Just as important is the need for transparency and easy access to plans that affect the citizenry they serve.