When readers are asked what their favorite part of the newspaper is, they’ll often say sports, obituaries, the front page, or the Life section.
But there’s another part of the paper that is just as important: public notices. This is where legally required information from local governments is published. The notices include minutes from meetings, bids and requests for proposals, upcoming public hearings, election notices and other important information. It’s so important that state law has required local governments to publish this information, going back to colonial times.
But nearly every legislative session, lawmakers consider new laws to weaken or remove public notices requirements, such as allowing governments to only print them on their own websites.
That’s a bad idea. We freely admit that newspapers make money from running public notices but there are a multitude of good reasons why newspapers should continue to print them. Here, in our opinion, are the more compelling ones:
• Newspapers agree that public notices should be on the Internet. That’s why the West Virginia Press Association and most newspapers in the state offer to place those notices on their website at no additional cost.
• Newspapers and newspaper websites are where the public has always gone to get news about their government — not government websites. We even asked in a recent poll, what their primary source for acquiring government or political information was and community newspapers were overwhelmingly the first choice.
• Advocates for taking public notices out of newspapers claim that it will save money but local government has never substantiated this claim. The money spent on putting public notices in papers is a very small percentage of the local government’s budget. And the expense of designing, operating, properly maintaining, and updating a website is significant, if done right. The newspaper rates for government public notices are well below the standard rates charged for other newspaper advertising.
• Many low income and senior citizens do not have ready access to the Internet, or prefer not to use it often. The American Association of Retired Persons, representing thousands of West Virginians 50 and older, has taken a position opposing removal of public notices from newspapers.
• Public notices in newspapers are the permanent records of what a public body does as well as the notification of what it intends to do. There is no archival history to government websites as there is with newspapers. Years from now, any citizen could go to a newspaper and read what the government did. How, if challenged by a community group, could a government agency prove it posted adequate notice on its website?
• Do we really want government to have sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its own notices? Newspaper publication prevents government from deciding when and how the notice is published, and whether it is changed after it is published. Public notices in newspapers are also a critical checks and balance on potential government errors.
The bottom line: The more the public knows about what elected officials do, the better off we all are. And the more open and accessible government information is, the less room there will be for speculation and rumor.
Keep public notices where they belong: in their local newspaper.