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‘Adequate notice’ a thing to treasure

‘Adequate notice’ a thing to treasure

Posted: Thursday, January 26, 2012 7:00 pm

By BILL WILLIAMS
How much attention do you pay to public notices in newspapers? If you’re like most people, the answer probably is “not much.” But these ads in small-type whose content is usually less than thrilling are like the fire department that’s out of mind until you need it, they fill an essential role in good government.
“Legals” are those bone-dry statements of some action that’s about to be taken that the public ought to know about: Settling an estate, maybe, or holding a public hearing or opening bids. They’re often found in the classified section of newspapers, the customary location for notices in our newspaper.
Tennessee law specifies situations where a governmental body can’t take action until “adequate notice” is given to the people. The idea is to promote good government by protecting citizens from abrupt or secret steps that could be taken without the public’s knowledge.
For many years, state law has defined “adequate notice” as publication in a newspaper of general circulation.
But each year some politicians urge that the law be changed to allow these notices instead to be aired on official government Web sites, where they can be accessed by any computer operator using the Internet.
The idea is to reduce costs, and everyone’s in favor of government spending less.
But the adage “penny-wise and pound-foolish” applies here. Before legislators rush to action, they should review the purpose of legals in the first place.
The aim is the most wide-spread possible distribution, within practical limits, so that the greatest number of people could know what’s going on.
The simple truth is that the widest reach comes through newspapers and their Web sites.
Think about it: How many citizens are going to take the trouble to visit the Web site of their local city or county to see if there’s anything about to happen they should know about?
Newspapers, of course, are wide open to claims that they’re afraid of losing a lucrative source of revenue. That’s true enough, but it’s not the whole truth.
Considering the whole population, there are too many citizens who don’t use computers or don’t surf the Net.
One study found that more than twice as many Tennesseans get information from newspaper Web sites than from local government Web sites, and that many older citizens don’t look to the Internet at all for information.
Governments that change their system of notifying the public of legal actions run the risk of being held liable for failing to give adequate notice.
One whopping lawsuit could wipe out any savings.
Bill Williams is publisher emeritus at The Paris Post-Intelligencer. Published in The Messenger 1.26.12

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