Editorials

If Republican lawmakers eliminate public notices, Floridians won’t know what their government is doing. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Republican lawmakers in the Florida Legislature want to eliminate the requirement the governments run public notices in newspapers.
Republican lawmakers in the Florida Legislature want to eliminate the requirement the governments run public notices in newspapers. Miami Herald

It’s a longstanding tradition — and it’s the law. In Florida, local governments must inform residents about upcoming issues directly affecting their lives — their neighborhoods, their schools, their taxes. For decades, the most effective way to do this has been by publishing public legal notices in local newspapers.

Legal notices alert residents about, for instance, municipalities’ proposed budgets, taxing districts and land-use changes, like the shocking news that a vacant lot near your house is about to become home to a high-density condo tower.

So it’s appalling, but not surprising, that the state is continuing its relentless effort to keep Floridians in the dark about what their government is doing. House Bill 1235 would abolish the requirement that local governments publish legal notices. The House Judiciary Committee is considering the legislation that would eliminate the need for public notices to be published in newspapers and their online sites. Worse, HB 1235 and its Senate companion, SB 1676, leave the responsibility up to local governments’ discretion.

Floridians should be concerned about not just this blatant attempt to shut down their easy access to public information that affects them, but also that some government officials might not think it important enough to keep them informed. After all, showing up at city hall to be heard is a bedrock of democracy. If residents don’t know what’s going on, they can’t petition their government.

Clearly, if these bills pass, notices will be seen by far fewer people. Lawmakers, especially those from South Florida, should resolutely reject this attempt to further cloud Florida’s government in the sunshine. Anything less would make it harder for Floridians to hold their leaders truly accountable.

The alternative proposed is atrocious: By 2020, public notices would be required to be published only on government websites. The Herald’s research delivers these facts:

1. In addition to their print audience, newspapers’ web audience is typically 10 times larger than most city or county websites.

2. Newspapers are required to post notices to www.floridapublicnotices.com, which has more traffic than many city or county websites, is easily searchable and is available to the public for free.

3. Current law prescribes where and how notices are displayed on newspaper websites and in print. HB 1235 and SB 1676 remove those requirements. Cities and counties will be able to hide notices.

4. Notices will only be seen by people who look for them. Currently, people find notices when they are looking for other information in a newspaper.

5. Internet access is not as readily available in some rural areas or for some segments of the population.

In addition, newspapers must provide email notification of new legal notices when they are published and added to the newspaper’s website for free. Such a paper trail likely will disappear if managed by local governments.

Yes, public notices make revenue for newspapers such as the Miami Herald, and politicians who don’t like being held accountable for the work they are required to do in the full glare of public scrutiny, are cynically trying to hurt papers’ bottom line. But the true and abiding benefit of easily accessible public notices is of much higher value. And the cost of losing them, and the long-lasting damage done, is incalculable. Lawmakers should reject these bills and stand up for the people whom they represent.

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