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GUEST OPINION: Newspapers best source for public notice

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By FRANK GIBSON
TPA Public Policy Director
When the First Congress met in New York City in 1789, the Acts of the First Session required the new government to publish all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes in at least three newspapers.

A few years later, Tennessee adopted its constitution. It requires the legislature to “publish” any amendment approved by the General Assembly, giving notice that the next legislature also will have to vote on it.

In the 1974 Sunshine (open meetings) Law, the General Assembly required government bodies to “give adequate public notice” before all meetings. The state courts have defined “adequate” to include: “Notice must be posted in a location where a member of the community can become aware of such notice.”

The purpose of notice in all three examples is to protect the public trust, but public notice in newspapers has been under attack in the Tennessee legislature for a while.

Efforts to move public notice from newspapers to the exclusive control of government websites continue to gain steam in the legislature here and elsewhere.

Research continues to show that the Internet in general and government-run websites in particular fall short of meeting the definition of  “adequate notice.”

The public trusts and depends on the current system for practical reasons. Newspapers are independent of government. They are historically reliable in publication and delivery. Through their printed product and news websites, information is more accessible to more people, and publication is verifiable that it was given on time and in the right form.

In Virginia, a governor’s task force on state mandates has recommended ending the requirement that notices be placed in newspapers despite a press association poll showing 94 percent of commonwealth residents believe it is “important” for government to keep the public informed through newspaper notices. That survey found 63 percent of respondents saying they would read notices less if they appeared only on government websites.

Bills to move notices from newspapers to government websites in Knoxville and Chattanooga were still pending when the Tennessee legislature returned to work this year.

The Hamilton County legislation was billed as a way for local government to save money, but the sponsor told the AARP Bulletin he doesn’t plan to push it this year.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a Republican from Hixson, said he “may introduce” a bill to create a central public notice website for all levels of government. He didn”t say when or where.

The issue has justifiably drawn interest and concern from citizen groups.

The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the AARP are putting it at the top of their “legislative activity” lists. Common Cause came out against the Hamilton-Knox proposals in written testimony to the Senate State and Local Government Committee in October.

AARP officials as said in the January edition of the AARP Bulletin that “defeating the public notice bills will again be a top priority for AARP TN and its volunteers in 2012.”

A LWV position paper noted the League’s concern over proposed “changes to the meeting notice requirements to allow electronic notice only.” Many Tennesseans “do not have reliable Internet access,” the paper stated, adding that “accessing a website is more cumbersome than flipping pages of a newspaper.”

A recent AARP survey found that only two out of five people older than 50 feel comfortable using the Internet, and there are Tennessee-specific numbers that raise alarms.

The latest statewide survey by the broadband-promoting Connected Tennessee (ConnectTN), done in late 2011, showed that only 29 percent of Tennessee households reported “interacting with government offices or elected officials” via the Internet.

Much of that Web traffic is driven by direct mail from the government.

ConnectTN also found that only 59 percent of Tennesseans older than 65 own a computer and only 42 percent have access to broadband. Low broadband access would make it harder, as one Virginia Press Association official noted, “to hunt for proposed government actions on difficult-to-navigate government websites.”

Total estimated broadband access was 64 percent in the ConnectTN survey, but only 55 percent of rural households had access to broadband.  In some counties, computer ownership numbers are lower than both of those numbers.

A Tennessee Press Association survey last fall showed 45 percent of Tennessee”s 2.5 million households buy newspapers.

It showed that in 60 of the state’s 95 counties, more than 50 percent of households buy newspapers; another 21 counties have circulation above 40 percent.

The latest data from Scarborough Research, which looks at readership of newspapers plus their news websites, showed that 70 percent of U.S. adults read a newspaper in print or online in the past seven days.

In its report to the General Assembly in 2011, the state Office of Open Records Counsel said it was asked: “Is it sufficient for the notices for state level board meetings to only be posted on a state website?” The answer was:

“No, because everyone does not have the ability to access a computer and access the website.”

The public is drawn to newspapers and newspaper websites by their general interest content.

Since two-thirds of newspapers post public notices on their websites in addition to publishing them in the paper, the chances of seeing a notice there is substantially greater than any government website.

Frank Gibson is the public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association and founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.