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OP-ED | Time to Reform the Legal Notices Mandate

by Leo Paul and Art Ward | May 26, 2013 5:32pm
(1) Comment | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Media Matters, Opinion

Art Ward and Leo Paul In 2013, Connecticut’s hometowns are still forced to pay to post legal notices—such as tax foreclosures, coastal site plans, lists of taxable personal properties, even budgets—in obscure pages of printed newspapers; posting them online doesn’t count.

This antiquated state law has not kept pace as technology has provided broader options and society seeks to receive information in faster, more direct ways. The failure of this mandate to evolve costs towns and cities in excess of $6 million each year in advertisement fees (which are charged at most newspapers’ highest rates). The mandate can cost our poorest cities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and burdens small towns as well.

The General Assembly can fix this problem today by passing Senate Bill 1112.

The “legal notices” mandate suppresses local governments’ visibility, protects the status quo, and uses property tax dollars as a life-preserver for financially-strapped newspapers. Municipal officials are sympathetic concerning the revenue loss SB 1112 would mean for newspapers.  However, with a state budget proposal that cuts municipal unrestricted aid by $93 million, property taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize print newspapers. The price of this and other unfunded state mandates at the local level is (1) higher property taxes, (2) municipal service cuts, and (3) teacher and municipal employees layoffs.

SB 1112 is a compromise:  Towns would be required to publish notice of the availability of a document in local newspapers, along with a summary and clear instructions as to how to get additional information or the complete text of the public document (municipal office where a hard copy can be obtained, a contact name and phone number that could be used to get more information, and the web address where an online version can be found).

To ensure that the public knows where to find the notice, SB 1112 would require newspapers to have a designated section for all public notices to be listed in the publications’ tables of content.

The Internet has become the tool most widely used for the dissemination of information.  With the unfortunate, steep decline in print newspaper readership, the Internet is the quickest, most efficient, transparent and cost-effective way to get information out to the greatest number of residents.

The Internet is where people shop, communicate, socialize, pay bills, and share general information. Municipal and state websites have become critical lifelines that link living rooms to town halls and the State Capitol, instantly.  Like local cable access stations, the Internet and municipal/state websites have allowed governmental activities to become even more transparent and accessible.

Passage of SB 1112 would not hamper the public’s right to know.  Rather, it would enhance public access, while also reducing taxpayer costs to provide information.

It is important to remember:

—The Internet is accessible to everyone. All local libraries are equipped with computers at no cost to the users. Newspapers must be purchased to be read.

—The Internet provides instantaneous and constantly updated information.  Newspapers provide a static snapshot in time.

—Internet sites may be accessed from anywhere in the world, at any time.  Newspapers may only be purchased in the region they serve.

—Public notices placed on Internet sites can remain there indefinitely, making the information available for a greater amount of time. Notices placed in newspapers are there only for the allotted paid-for time.

—Print newspaper circulation rates are low and declining, reaching only a fraction of the public audience.

The State is already moving toward a paperless system:  The General Assembly stopped printing certain important legislative documents several years ago.  Further, PA 12-92 requires all proposed state agency regulations to be placed online instead of published in paper form, and there are numerous other proposals this year to stop publishing (yet provide online access to) other state notices and information – all in an effort to save state dollars, without infringing on the public’s access to information.

Now is time to do the same for towns and cities—and their overburdened residential and business property taxpayers.

SB 1112 would still provide newspaper-published information yet save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

Now is the time for reasonable change.  State lawmakers should enact Senate Bill 1112 this year.

Leo Paul, is first selectman of Litchfield and Art Ward is mayor of Bristol.

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Comment

posted by: Fisherman | May 27, 2013  8:10pm

I find it offensive that the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association (CDNA) can run full-page advertisements against this (and similar) bills on a daily basis, yet they are unwilling to reduce or eliminate the cost of placing these notices in their newspapers. 

The legislature SHOULD support SB-1112: An Act Concerning the Publication of Legal Notices by Municipalities; because its passage would simultaneously reduce costs to municipalities and improve transparency for our citizens. In addition to the benefits from the posting of Legal Notices, these bills would foster additional benefits. Allow me to explain.

Citizens have come to rely on municipal websites as the preferred medium for obtaining information on town meetings, agendas, minutes and issues which may impact them.  More often than not, a posting on the town’s website is the only one seen by citizens; who would not normally take time from their jobs to visit Town Hall to view the Meeting Boards or may not be mobile enough to do so. Local newspapers simply cannot perform an equivalent function, since they do not print the agendas and minutes of the numerous committees in every town they cover; and the cost of advertising this information would be prohibitively expensive. But there are still more reasons to advance these bills.

First, the processing of requests under the Freedom of Information Act is drastically reduced; since, in most cases the information is readily available for all to see and print, as they see fit. 

Second, municipal websites serve as the repositories for the vast historical data on committee actions; preventing “re-invention of the wheel” by similar future committees. 

Third, the ready availability of this information on the internet has increased citizen participation in our town governments. These citizens bring their good ideas to the table; thus providing better solutions for our towns.

Fourth, requiring the posting of this information on the internet allows citizens who may be away from town, immobile, serving on military duty or for those of us who maintain second homes or summer cottages, to monitor the actions of committees and commissions in other towns while we are away.

People from all walks of life have come to depend on the Internet for news and information. Last week, I used the Connecticut Legislature’s website (www.cga.ct.gov) to learn that they would be considering this bill; something I would certainly not know in any other way.  And I will read the results of their deliberations on this bill on this same website.

If it makes sense for the Legislature to post this type of information on the internet, why would it make any less sense for a municipality to do so?