Public Notice Week set for January 18-24, 2015
Tennessee Press Association has set Public Notice Week for January 18-24, 2015. The following are editorials, cartoons and ads that may be used by member newspapers to promote the importance of public notice. We encourage you to use the materials, and to produce your own editorials, during the designated week and throughout the year. Items from the previous year's kit are also available at the bottom of this page.
Independent public notices key to government transparency
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director mug shot
Editor’s note: it’s Public Notice Week Jan. 18-24—time to remind citizens of the value of Public Notices in representative democratic government.
When governments create or authorize state and local agencies to create new programs, they typically require some measure of public disclosure as a form of public oversight and to make agencies accountable.
As far back as 1789, during the first American Congress, that accountability has come in the form of public notices in independently-published newspapers. Actions of the congress were ordered to be published in three separate newspapers to ensure wide circulation.
The concept eventually extended to commerce as a way to protect property interest, provide due process and consumer protection from certain business entities – foreclosures, bankruptcies or unclaimed property, to name a few.
City councils, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies are required to provide special notices of special meetings, for example, because those notices must list all items to be discussed. Public notices are required for public hearings on land zoning changes, proposed budgets and taxes, certain ordinances, annexations, and when the government plans to use its ultimate police power – the use of eminent domain to take private property.
Public notices are like the third leg of a stool – with the open records and open meetings laws.
Proposals have been made in Tennessee and other states to move those disclosure notices solely to government websites. That would be tantamount to eliminating public notices as they have historically been.
As one commentator in Georgia noted on a similar county commissioners’ association proposal: “That would take notices out of plain sight and bury them in the tangle of documents on government-designated websites.”
Anyone looking for a public notice would have to know exactly what they are searching for and when and where to look. Instead of going to their local newspaper where they have always gone to see notices, citizens would be left searching for “a needle in a haystack.”
Public notices need to be made available as widely as possible. Tennessee newspapers and the General Assembly smartly went in that direction last year.
Since April 1, Tennessee newspapers post every notice printed in the local paper on their local website and on a statewide, aggregate website provided by the Tennessee Press Association. Those extra services are included at no extra cost to the entity placing the notices.
To ensure the notices are easily found, newspapers must link to the notices section from the website homepage. From there they link to the statewide website at www.tnpublicnotices.com. The site is searchable.
The only way to make distribution any wider would require stuffing notices in every mailbox.
Two primary arguments for changing to websites exclusively -- saving government money and reports of declining readership of print newspapers – don’t really hold water.
The touted savings never include the costs of maintaining a dependable and secure government website, one that can’t be hacked and where there are no guarantees.
Newspaper critics argue there is “a march toward online news with its immediacy and away from print news.”
The latest available figures showed that 45% of Tennessee households subscribe to newspapers. That’s a base. When newspaper website traffic is added, it is easy to see that many readers migrating from print are migrating to newspaper-run websites. Now they will find notices in both places, plus 1.
The Aspen Times, a newspaper in Colorado, compared its website to the site for the combined local city and county governments. The newspaper site had 4.7 times more monthly users and 8.5 times more monthly page views because readers, taxpayers and voters were coming to the Times and its website for other reasons and interests.
No one has said it better than the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times:
“Newspapers have a long and important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on officeholders and agencies through our news reporting and publication of government notices.”
Frank Gibson is public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public Notice Week: Something to celebrate
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director mug shot
Residents of Mt. Judea, Ark., woke up one morning recently to learn that their small community is about to become host to a hog farm – population 6,503 hogs.
“What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it,” Gordon Watkins, a nearby farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, told the Arkansas Times in Little Rock.
State and local government officials had already approved the facility and said the public notice of the permit review process was “legally sufficient.” However, the instant replay showed the only notice the state gave was on the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The only recourse left for Mt. Judeans is a lawsuit.
Stories like this abound all over the country, including in the Volunteer State. Despite that, numerous bills have been filed in the state legislature here in recent years to allow city councils and school boards among others to stop placing notices in newspapers and instead put them on their own websites.
Stories like this also prompted newspapers nationwide to create Public Notice Week to bring attention to public notices and how important they are to our democracy. It’s been that way since 1789. Open meetings and records laws as well as public notices allow citizens to know about and participate in their government.
Usually there is little to celebrate because bills to move or eliminate notices are always around. Some may surface yet in 2014, but this year is different. There is something worth celebrating.
Starting April 1, Tennessee newspapers which print public notices also will post them on the newspaper’s local website and upload them to a statewide aggregate website, www.tnpublicnotice.com, operated by the Tennessee Press Association. A majority of TPA’s 121 member newspapers has been doing both for some time.
TPA made a commitment and proposed legislation last year to formalize it. It requires newspapers to do the double posting – triple if you consider print – at no additional charge and provides that newspapers make notices easier to find with special links on their website homepages.
TPA executive director Greg Sherrill said the new law “ensures the best of both worlds.”
“Our leadership realized that an increasing number of our readers choose to receive their news and information from newspaper websites, which are consistently among the most-trafficked sites within any given community,” Sherrill said. “By making sure that notices are also available on these sites, newspapers can make public notices accessible to the widest audience possible. While online notices are convenient for many readers, they lack the security, durability, and ability for archival that the printed notices provide.”
Proposed changes here and elsewhere usually center on arguments that ending the practice of advertising notices will save the government money, but random checks show those expenses rarely exceed one-tenth of 1 percent of the agency’s budget.
Open government advocates question whether moving notices exclusively to government websites, in effect, eliminates public notice because it certainly removes the independent quality.
Government officials everywhere argue that the issue is about newspaper revenue. Newspapers acknowledge the revenue argument, but government officials don’t acknowledge how few people visit their websites. One survey last year showed almost 150 city and county governments didn’t have websites.
Proposals have contained no real standards for government websites. Bills here and in Pennsylvania provided they had to be available only 90 percent of the time. Citizens without computer access could get hard copies of notices at City Hall. Proponents didn’t explain how citizens would know when and where to ask.
Public opinion surveys in other states show that super majorities of taxpayers believe that the independent publication of public notices is worth the expense.
Webster’s defines the word “optimum” as “the point at which the condition, degree or amount of something is the most favorable or advantageous.” The new law and the services it requires newspapers to provide are about as favorable and advantageous as you can get short of a direct notice to every resident.
Opponents of the change, admittedly some newspaper editorial writers, argue that notices should stay in the newspaper where the public already knows where to find them, and some previous proposals here and elsewhere have addressed that issue.
The solution: place an advertisement in the newspaper telling citizens about the government website.
What a novel idea.
Frank Gibson is TPA’s public policy director. He can be reached at 615-202-2685 or at email@example.com.
2013 Material: Editorials Cartoons Ads Download kit as .zip file
Editorials/Columns: Talking points for developing op-ed pieces talking points
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director link to text mug shot
With efforts expected in the legislature again this year to move public notices from newspapers to government-controlled websites, Tennesseans should be concerned about the implications of that change for them and their right to know.
There are obvious reasons why these notices need to be distributed as broadly as possible and delivered by the most independent and reliable source available. Statewide and sometimes obscure local government websites don’t fit the bill.
By Jack McElroy, Knoxville News Sentinel link to text mug shot
In recent years, the General Assembly has considered amending the way public notices are handled in Tennessee. This is understandable. The communications world is changing, and newspapers, where many public notices historically have been published, are in transition.
But the assumption that government could save money and still adequately notify the public by simply posting notices on government websites is flawed.
By Ted Rayburn, Editorial Page Editor, The Tennessean link to text
With the legislature dramatically reducing the number of bills members can file this year, it will be easier than usual to make a list of the bad bills of recent years that should not be resurrected during the 108th General Assembly.
Making the wearing of motorcycle helmets optional would be on that list. So should bills that propose to change or eliminate public notices.
By Henry Stokes, retired associate publisher of The Commercial Appeal link to text mug shot
The essence of your freedom is that in America, very little government happens by decree. Most every action is open to democratic debate.
Question is: Will that debate occur before or after a decision is made?
On big issues – like, who will be mayor or governor – you have the right as a citizen to vote before an election or issue is decided.
On many other issues, you can’t influence a decision unless you find out about it before hand.
That’s where public notices protect your rights.
By Bill Williams, The Paris Post-Intelligencer Link to text mug shot
Democracy is not for everybody. We’ve learned that in the Middle East, where societies with ancient tribal roots are shown to be unprepared for a government system in which the majority rules by public vote.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people can work only if the people are informed. An electorate that does not know or understand what government is all about is an invitation to despotism.
By Jim Zachary, Tennessee Transparency Project link to text mug shot
Any battle to remove required government public notices from newspapers is an assault on government transparency.
Compromising government transparency is a full-out assault on the citizens of Tennessee.
Government belongs to the governed, not the governing.
Link for Charlie Daniel cartoon for 2013
Special thanks to Charlie Daniel, Knoxville News Sentinel, for providing a cartoon again this year!
Links to Clay Bennett cartoon color BW
Special thanks to Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press, for providing a cartoon again this year!
Special thanks to Karen Geary, The Paris Post-Intelligencer for desiging these ads!
Download color or B/W Download color or B/W Download color or B/W
Download color or B/W Download color or B/W
Remember the Good Ol' Days... Color Public Notice is hereby given... Color Black&White
Cartoon courtesy of Charlie Daniel, News Sentinel, Knoxville Cartoon courtesy of Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
From the 2011 Kit Color
Black/White From the 2011 Kit Notice the Difference cartoons Color Black/White
Cartoons are courtesy of Charlie Daniel, News Sentinel, Knoxville
From the 2011 Kit Link to Public Notice by Government Color
Cartoon is courtesy of Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
link to ads This series of Public Notice Ads reinforces the importance of printed notice
The following public notice ads were adapted by Chattanooga Times Free Press from concept ads created by Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association, and are available for all TPA members to use. All ads are half page ads.
link to "Hadn't you heard?"
Link to Get Involved ad series Link to Bad Idea ad Link to Fox Hen House ad Link to America Noticed! ads