In what has become an annual tradition, several Idaho legislators were again pushing bills to reduce or eliminate requirements for governmental agencies to publish legal notices in local newspapers. The bills died quietly this week, but if history tells us anything, it’s that they’ll be resurrected this time next year.
The effort is always framed as a way to save taxpayer dollars. While that might be partially true, it is also an effort by some legislators to hurt newspapers by cutting off a source of revenue. Skeptics might also allege that it is a dangerous step toward hiding key facts from the public.
You should be forewarned that this is a potential infringement on your right to know. Legal notices disclose important information about local, county and state government, as well as events occurring in the local and state court systems. Here are just a few of the reasons why publication of these notices in newspapers has long been a legal requirement:
• Allowing for the internet-only posting of public notices on the governmental agencies’ sites or a central government site takes away third-party neutral interest, and removes any independent proof of publication. For example, once officially printed in a newspaper, the posting entity cannot later change or manipulate the timing of public notices.
• Newspapers serve an important monitoring function. If government entities and private parties are able to publish their own notices with no guaranteed public distribution, it would be much more difficult for the community to monitor whether they are publishing them. Newspapers, on the other hand, have a contract with the state and a duty to publish, and thus are more apt to make sure local governments are publishing notices in accordance with the law.
• Local newspapers are the traditional medium for public notices where the public, including infrequent newspaper readers, expects to find them. (In fact, some commercial services, such as those serving the construction industry, actually mine public notices, and then pass on valuable information via email notification lists).
• Particularly in rural areas and among aging populations, there still are people without adequate computer or internet access.
• Newspapers offer readers a single, convenient place to find public notices. By contrast, allowing individual government entities to publish notices on their respective websites would create a myriad of different locations on the World Wide Web (e.g. state, county, city, taxing districts, bank foreclosures, notice to creditors).
• Printed legal ads provide a record of public notices that cannot be altered. They are forever archived and available for review, as opposed to some internet sites that are here today and gone tomorrow.
The Press encourages all taxing entities to post public notices on their websites as well as in the newspaper. Broadening distribution instead of restricting it is the right idea. For further coverage and transparency, the Newspaper Association of Idaho also maintains, at its own expense, a searchable website containing all public notices required to be published throughout the state. See: https://www.idahopublicnotices.com
Of all the ways public bodies can save money, cutting funds that properly notify citizens of the governmental business that directly affects their lives is among the most ill-advised. Good government includes fully informing the citizens.