Not-so-public notices not in public’s interest

Not-so-public notices not in public’s interest

Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 8:36 pm

By JIM ZACHARY
Should government keep public notices in newspapers?
There are four words to consider:
• Government;
• Public;
• Notice; and
• Newspapers.
Only one of those words matters — Public.
The issue of whether government should require the publication of public notices in newspapers is not about anything other than what is in the public’s best interest.
This issue is not about what is good for government.
It is not about what is good for newspapers.
It is only about what is good for the public.
The battle over the publication of public notices in Tennessee should not be a battle about either government saving money or about newspapers making money. Both of those issues are red herrings and have nothing to do with the larger issue and that is about what is right for the citizens of Tennessee.
A handful of legislators across the state of Tennessee seem bound and determined to relieve local government of its responsibility to publish public notices in local newspapers.
There is a reason why public notices are required to begin with and that is simply to provide for openness and transparency in Government.
This issue is about what is in the best interest of 6.3 million Tennesseans.
Where do ordinary citizens in Tennessee’s 95 counties get their information about the community they live in?
How do they stay aware of the actions and decisions of local government?
Internet websites may be used by a large number of Tennesseans for entertainment, for playing games, for research, for general information or even for national and international news.
However, people stay informed about their local community through their local newspaper.
This boils down to a question about where people look for and find information about their respective communities.
Ordinary citizens simply do not peruse the Internet looking for public notices.
If citizens in Anderson County want to know when a public hearing on next year’s property tax rate is going to be set, they will look for that information in the Clinton Courier News or The Oak Ridger. If people in Obion County have concerns about a foreclosure or an estate sale, they will turn to the pages of the Union City Daily Messenger. If the citizens of Grainger County are looking through the classified advertising section in Grainger Today and see a permit application that could potentially impact ground water or air quality, they will likely show up for the scheduled public hearing.
If Murfreesboro city fathers consider a sweeping annexation that could take in a large number of Rutherford County residents who might be opposed to being annexed into the city, citizens most likely would first find out about it in the pages of The Daily News Journal.
Newspapers have long been the fourth estate. Whether government likes it or not, newspapers are where citizens turn for information about local government and that is not changing anytime soon.
Perhaps government does not always want its citizens to know what it is up to and that is just too bad. They have every right to know.  Newspapers have historically protected those rights and will continue to do so.
Placing government information on government websites is fine, but it is not a replacement, and will never be a replacement, for providing the most visible, most transparent, most useful information for and about a given community.
Citizens are not going to go to a government-run website or a centralized public notice website to find information unless they are already aware or clued in to what they are looking for and that is one important distinction between the institutional government-run website and a true public forum, such as the local newspaper.
For an example, suppose in a reappraisal year local officials have the intention of not ratifying the certified property tax rate even though property values may have increased significantly, resulting in an effective tax hike. Even though the tax “rate,” would remain unchanged, because of the reappraisals an unchanged rate is in all actuality a tax increase.
By law, the local government is required to give public notice and conduct a public hearing prior to setting the tax rate.
Suppose the not-so-public notice was simply posted on a local or state government website. Who would see it? Why would anyone even be looking for such a notice?
Obviously, if local officials did not want citizens to show up and protest the true tax hike they might prefer the “notice,” not be “noticed” and be buried somewhere on a website that would not be a true alert either to the media or to citizens at-large.
How could this be in the public’s best interest?
Clearly, it would not be.
Public notices must remain public and the only way to protect the public nature of those notices is by publication in local newspapers — not because it’s good for newspapers, not because it’s good for government, but because it’s good for the public.
Jim Zachary is editor of Grainger Today/Hawkins Today.
Published in The Messenger 1.24.12

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