We’ve all seem them. The public notices in the newspaper, small print and all, alerting the public of need-to-know goings-on in local municipalities, such as special elections or the adoption of the tax rate.
Some state lawmakers want you to think these items are a waste of time and money. Don’t believe them.
Today, if officials of a local government or other public entity plan to hold a public meeting or take action that will affect a community, Florida law requires it to alert the public, usually in the classified section of a newspaper and the newspaper’s website. They can’t leave the public in the dark about what goes on at City Hall — nor should they.
Public notices are a vital component ensuring government accountability. They have been included in newspapers since the beginning of the republic. Now they are also on many newspapers’ websites.
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But in Florida, that could change. It shouldn’t. House Bill 897 and Senate Bill 1444 call for ending the requirement of posting such notices in publications in print and online, making them readily accessible to the public. Instead, the bills allow posting only on the government websites, with some exceptions.
These bills will keep the public marginally informed — or in the dark altogether.
A 2017 survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed that 83 percent of Floridians say their state and local governments should be required to publish public notices in the newspaper on a regular basis. That same study showed that 82 percent of Floridians would not visit the websites of their cities and counties to look for public notices.
The House bill, introduced by Weston Democratic State Rep. Richard Stark — who did not return calls from the Editorial Board — has the support of the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. “Our support is based on the fact that this is a substantial cost-cutting measure,” said FAC spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller.
Municipalities spend thousands of dollars a year placing public notices. And, yes, newspapers, including the Miami Herald, benefit. But this practice should not be about money. Back in the days when newspapers’ classified space was at a premium, newspapers never considered cutting back on the advertising space allotted to public notices. That was sacred territory: Public notices helped inform the public. Period.
But these notices have now become a target, compromising transparency and accountability in government.
This year, at least 120 bills relating to public notices in newspapers have been introduced in 37 states through the first week of March, according to the Public Notice Resource Center. Americans across the country should stand vigilant against what looks for all the world like an organized effort to keep them uninformed.
Many of the new bills merely add or change requirements, but more than a dozen states are considering legislation that would move all or most of their official notices from newspapers to websites operated or controlled by government units. That’s unacceptable. Providing the public with access to full information is critical, especially as today’s charged political discourse have people chomping at the bit to stay engaged with government.
Newspapers provide critical, independent third-party verification. They provide a tangible paper trail ensuring that government notices have been published in a timely and lawful manner.
Floridians should fight to keep the right to be notified by an independent entity about what their local government is doing. Anything less is bad news.