Small towns, newspapers and public notices

This past week was "Sunshine Week" - referring to the idea that public decision-making and the information related to these decisions should be out in the open. That all of the information that is reviewed by a city council, county board, town board, etc... should be available to the public for the review. We absolutely support this openness.

I noticed in one of the local newspapers and interesting editorial related to Sunshine Week. It argued that part of maintaining an "open" public decision-making process, it is necessary to keep the state laws that require public notices of meetings, tax forfeited properties, etc... be published in local newspapers (there is apparently an effort to eliminate this requirement).

Is this true? If counties and townships and cities were now able to publish all their public notices on their own web page rather than in the local newspapers, would people's ability to know what is going on in their governing bodies suffer? Would councils and boards feel more tempted to make decisions "in the dark' becuase they assumed fewer people knew about their meetings and what they were discussing?

It brings up a whole series of other questions in my mind too, but I'll try to keep them to a few. I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on these...

  1. How essential are local newspapers to small towns? This article highlights a few reasons why they are. I agree. They cover local stories that newspapers from larger cities would not. They keep people informed as to what is going on. They can definitley play an important role in keeping public decisions out in the open.
  2. If we agree local newspapers are important, is the revenue that newspapers receive from public notices necessary to their survival? Or are public notices bid at so low a price that they are really revenue neutral or a loss? In other words, if public notices were not printed in local newspapers anymore, would it threaten their survival?
  3. Is publishing public notices in local newspapers the best way to keep people aware? On the surface, it sounds like the most egalitarian method - the method that best ensures that everyone has access to the information. But what if not everyone subscribes? What if much of the population lives out of the area (i.e. seasonal residents living on lakes)? What if their are multiple local newspapers - does the city have to publish in all of them to meet the spirit of the law? Is the extra cost worth it considering that taxpayers are footing the bill?
  4. I'll agree that allowing local governments to post their public notices on their website instead of the newspapers is probably not a complete solution. While internet access is certainly growing in availability, it is still not for everyone.
  5. Shouldn't we be looking for a multi-pronged method for notifying people of public hearings? I can see where newspapers miss a lot of people. I can see where the internet misses lots of people. But what if a local government's website allowed people to sign up on an e-mail list to receive notices by e-mail? What if there was an organization that local governments sent their notices to, they published a small flyer listing them all, and newspapers included them as an "insert" once a week? What if we tried a number of different methods - many of which require very little expenditure on the part of the taxpayer.
  6. Newspapers certainly do provide a good way to have a historical record of what was noticed and what was not. Do any of the other methods allow us to maintain a good historical, reliable record?

Would love to hear people's thoughts on these and related questions...