Sunshine Week is all about open government. Open meetings. Open files. Transparency.
Citizens can’t be informed and engaged if they don’t know what the government is doing to — er, I mean, for — them.
A very basic form of information about government activities is the lowly public notice. I say “lowly” with tongue firmly planted in cheek, because these notices provide a lot of information — sometimes information that reporters don’t have the time to write about. Their subjects may not make for interesting reading for a large swath of the population, but if a notice is about a proposal affecting your neighborhood, it may be of extreme interest to you.
Typically, public notices (and legal notices concerning court actions, judgments, name changes etc.) are printed in a tiny font in narrow columns on the back pages of a newspaper. They’re not easy to find or easy to read.
And almost without exception, you have to have the physical printed paper in your hands to read the notices. Newspapers have websites, but they usually don’t post the notices online. The public notices maintain a customer base for printed papers — various firms and businesses subscribe to print papers only to access the notices.
Public notices also mean revenues for newspapers. No newspaper publisher ever got rich off those revenues, but it’s a steady source of income and in the current business climate for newspapers, it’s certainly not insignificant. Newspaper publishers are paid by the line, with the fees set by state law. The size of the type is also set by state law. And then there’s the boost to circulation revenue, as noted above.
State law that dates back to the days of manual typewriters and hot metal type — in other words, the first half of the 20th century — mandates that public notices be printed in newspapers that are mailed to subscribers via the U.S. Postal Service. Seriously.
When it comes to notifying the public of government meetings, hearings, actions and laws, state lawmakers in the 21st century are content to use 100-year-old methods of communication to keep the citizenry informed.
How’s that working out?
Not so well. Print newspaper circulation is in a death spiral — we’re talking a more than 40 percent decline in paid circulation at the local paper since 2010, according to annual postal statement legal notices the publisher is required to publish. It’s a sad fact. But it’s a fact.
And it’s only going to get worse — as fewer and fewer people use the paper media that state law requires governments to print public notices in. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of people age 18-29 reported they “often” got their news from print. The number was 10 percent for the 30 to 49 year-old group and 23 percent for people between 50 and 64 years of age. Even in the over-65 group, less than half read newspapers “often.”
State lawmakers know this, of course. They get their news on their phones, tablets and laptops just like everyone else. Even the state senate’s most senior member, our own Sen. Ken LaValle, who will turn 80 in May, enjoys the digital information age and understands that digital media has supplanted print media for national, regional and local news consumers.
So every year since 2011, state lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow online notices — published by online news sites like this — to fulfill government’s obligation to inform citizens of its actions. And every year, the bills die in committee — never even making it to a vote on the floor of either chamber.
I asked Legislator Fred Thiele, who as been a cosponsor on the bill every year, why this happens. He told me he really doesn’t know. He’s not a member of the committee where it withers on the vine each year. But wither it does.
I suspect lobbying by newspaper publishers has something to do with it. A newspaper publishers’ trade association reports lobbying on public notice legislation, according to the state database on lobbyists.
While it makes sense for newspapers and the future of their business, it’s not good for transparency or, ultimately, good government.
We publish public notices on our site. The town board, planning board and zoning board send us notices and the school district does as well. Because notices published here don’t meet the requirements of the archaic state law, we don’t charge the governments anything for the publication. We consider it a public service for our community, for the sake of government transparency.
If the state legislature really cares about transparency in government, they’ll pass those bills one of these years. Based on industry trends, in the not-too-distant future, they won’t have any choice.