Why we fight limits on public notices

Posted on Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 11:17 am

With the legislature dramatically reducing the number of bills members can file this year, it will be easier than usual to make a list of the bad bills of recent years that should not be resurrected during the 108th General Assembly.

Making the wearing of motorcycle helmets optional would be on that list.So should bills that propose to change or eliminate public notices.

Each of the past three years, local and state officials have pushed legislators to introduce bills that would end the requirement that government notices be advertised in Tennessee newspapers. Just as with the helmetless motorcycle bill, this legislation, if it re-emerges this year, could be bad for you.

Notices of public hearings, environmental permit requests and other matters have been required to be published for many years, and not because it might profit newspaper companies. Newspapers are by far the best way to reach the most people in Tennessee on government matters on which they have the right to be informed.

The substitute that backers of the legislation offer, posting notices only on a myriad of state and local government websites, is woefully inadequate to the task of reaching the population. How many Tennesseans have access to or use those websites? It probably is nowhere near the 45 percent of the households that see public notices in the state’s newspapers.

The often-stated reason for the legislation is that it will save the government money. That reason becomes less and less plausible because many of the state’s newspapers have websites where public notices appear now at no charge. And the newspaper websites, too, have a readership audience, and attraction and convenience that a government website cannot match.

When it really comes down to it, it seems that some individuals in state and local government have a sheer disregard for the public’s right to know about what the government is up to. Some are always looking for ways to block the sunshine and mute public opinion.

This is why, every year, the Tennessee Press Association and its member newspapers observe Public Notice Week. This year, it is Jan. 20-26. It is the perfect time for Tennesseans to ponder whether they truly have the kind of transparency in government they want and is required by law.

It’s also a good time to consider whether those we have elected have the public welfare at heart. If they support legislation that would limit your right to know, that’s a red flag.

-The Tennessean

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