There are lots of reasons people read newspapers – for the latest news, political commentary and entertainment; advertisements from local businesses; and legal notices about things going on in their local government.
Those legal notices, which usually appear in the Classified section, make government transparent by letting the public know about upcoming hearings, zoning changes, invitations to bid on projects and so much more. State law requires these notices be printed in newspapers to ensure residents have access to the information.
In Lansing, there is another push by some legislators to end the requirement that public notices be printed in newspapers, allowing local governments instead to simply post the notices on their websites. Although such a move may seem harmless, if implemented it will significantly reduce the transparency of local governments. These notices in a third-party publication give readers a one-stop location to keep up with potential government actions that may affect their lives and their pocketbooks.
As an example, the owner of a business that regularly bids on government contracts reads the public notices to know when bids are being sought from various government agencies. Sure, the business owner could still get the information if the public notices were no longer printed in newspapers, but he or she would have to look at dozens of county, city, township and school district websites on a regular basis to get the information currently available by reading county newspapers. As a practical matter, the business owner won’t have time to keep up with all the public notices published on separate websites, and as a result won’t bid on as many projects. Fewer bids in many cases will mean taxpayers will pay higher prices for services.
When a government agency schedules a public hearing on a controversial topic, the public notice published in a newspaper alerts concerned residents about the meeting. But when such notices aren’t published in newspapers, and far fewer people know about the meetings, attendance and public input will drop. That may be a big win for government officials who don’t like facing angry constituents, but it’s a big loss for local residents. It makes local government less transparent and less accountable.
What about people who don’t read newspapers? There is nothing stopping governments from posting the public notices on their websites now. And many Michigan newspapers, including The Herald-Palladium, are starting to send the public notices they publish to a statewide website administered by the Michigan Press Association, giving non-newspaper-reading residents online access to the information.
Many residents rely on local newspapers as their primary source of information about their communities, and taking public notices out of newspapers would be a disservice to those residents, and it would do harm to the many local newspapers across the state that readers rely on to keep local government officials accountable.