Public notices deserve to be easily noticed
Sunday, February 19, 2017 6:00 PM
Every time the Texas legislature convenes these days an effort is made to shield various actions taken by tax-funded public entities from being noticed by the public.
Again this year, bills have been filed seeking to allow entities to simply post required public notices somewhere on their websites rather than having those notices published in local newspapers.
Those efforts always claim to be in the interest of saving taxpayers the money that is spent in putting public notices in newspapers.
That would be one impact of any such action, but at a high cost to the public in awareness of what their government agencies are doing.
Studies have shown the amount of money that most entities spend on public notices is but a fraction of one percent of their overall budget.
And if I remember right, several years ago it was pointed out that one entity crying about the cost of public notices actually was spending more money just to buy bottled water.
I’ll admit that keeping public notices in newspapers affects the newspaper industry partly because we benefit financially from those notices, although by law we are required to charge our lowest available rate.
But it will be the public that is most affected if public notices can be found only on government websites.
By their very name, public notices are designed to inform the public – that’s you – of government actions that might affect you.
Those notices could be about a proposed tax hike, plans by your neighbor to block your view with a new garage, or an industry’s hopes to quietly put a processing plant in your neighborhood before you know about it.
A city might want to annex your property or a county could be putting in a new landfill near your home.
You need to know about those things, and state law has long declared you deserve to know.
Newspapers are still the best way to make that happen.
You’re reading a newspaper right now, and I’m sure this column is not the only thing you look at in the paper.
You might check to see if your grandchild made the honor roll, who won last night’s games, and whether there’s an announcement about your friend’s engagement, wedding or anniversary.Maybe you work the crossword puzzle or check the obituaries.
Whether you skim the pages or read your newspaper from cover to cover, there’s a good chance you might spot a public notice in the process.
What if that public notice was only on a government website?
When was the last time you perused the city’s website? Have you ever gone to the county’s website? Would you know where to find a public notice on a school website?
What about other entities such as the hospital district, water conservation district, etc.? How often do you visit their websites?
As it is now, you can find public notices from them all right here in your local newspaper. Easy as that.
Newspapers are not at all opposed to entities posting notices on their website. If fact, we encourage it.
Just don’t take them out of the newspapers in the process.
Allowing entities to post their own notices only on their own websites – especially notices they don’t want you to see – would be like the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
How accessible would those notices be? Were they available when they were supposed to be? How would anyone know, especially if a question arose months later?
Putting them in the newspaper provides that assurance.
Last year a firm seeking a tax abatement on a solar facility here inquired to see if a required public notice had been posted before the issue was brought to the county commissioners court.
It hadn’t. Because of that, they had to do it again to ensure the public an opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
That’s accountability – accountability that stays around long after the fact.
When a public notice runs in the newspaper, proof of the notice long remains available in both print and digital format.
You, the public, will be the big losers if public notices are ever taken out of newspapers.
Russel Skiles is the publisher of the Lamesa Press-Reporter.