Jim Fogler

Jim Fogler

Last year, the Florida Legislature passed a public notice bill (HB 7049) that went into effect Jan. 1. The new law gives counties the option to place public notices solely on their own government website and dispense with any such notice in the traditional format – newspapers and newspaper websites.

The reasons given for county websites vary – saving the government money, newspapers are dying, it’s a newspaper subsidy, no one reads public notices, etc. But a closer look reveals another side to the story, one that casts doubt and reveals the downsides of such a plan.

In fact, government website-only notice will push government actions further into the shadows and make it less transparent. And it will make it harder for Floridians to monitor their local government and hold their leaders accountable.

Public notices cover a host of government activities, ranging from local millage rates and zoning changes to delinquent taxes and school board decisions. They can herald an important hearing by elected officials on matters crucial to everyday lives. The notices are, in fact, a form of basic constitutional due process protecting the rights of citizens and their property in a functioning democracy.

Under the traditional process, the notices are not just placed in the printed newspaper. They are also required by law to be posted visibly on the newspaper’s website. In addition, the notices are required to be uploaded to a searchable FPA website that aggregates all Florida government notices at floridapublicnotices.com.

If a citizen wants follow-up notices to those posted to the site (or the newspaper’s site), he or she can request email alerts of the new notices. These services – required by law – are free to the public; there is no paywall. What’s more, the aggregated site continues to be modernized and upgraded to serve Florida’s state government, as well as its towns, municipalities, businesses and taxpayers.

If this traditional process is discarded and notices move to the county website, they no longer will be posted in newspapers or on the statewide website. The result will be a county-by-county patchwork of notices around the states – making public notices less visible and accessible to the public.

What about the claim that newspapers are dying? While print circulation in daily papers has declined, weekly newspapers are growing, and our dailies are seeing increases in digital subscriptions and page views. In some cases, newspapers are experiencing double-digit online growth.  

Newspapers in Florida alone reach 5.6 million readers in any given week, and our newspaper websites typically reach more audience than most city or county websites and draw a minimum of 53 million unique online users in any given month. The claim of newspaper irrelevancy is simply not true. They are more relevant than ever.

So, what about cost savings the government websites will produce? In the counties considering this change, no specific savings have been outlined. If county websites replace newspapers, the local governments will be required to recreate the same infrastructure newspaper have already have – increasing the cost of government.

In addition, without an investment in marketing to direct citizens to hundreds of government websites, the public will not know where to find public notices. Also, on the expense front, county government public notice websites will also be required to provide citizens, if requested, a copy of notices via email or first-class mail – another new cost.

As for the charge that the notices are a newspaper subsidy, it’s true newspapers derive some revenue from them but calling it a subsidy ignores the fact that newspapers perform a service just as other county vendors do.

This issue is not only about the money. It’s about an independent publisher helping to ensure government transparency and honesty.

Public notices belong in a public forum – newspapers – where citizens are most likely to see them. Public notices should remain in newspapers, not placed on hundreds of different government websites with the hope that people will find them.

Call your county and city officials to share your views. Tell them the other side of the story – and directly from citizens who care.

Jim Fogler is the president and CEO of Florida Press Association, representing the daily and weekly newspapers of Florida. FPA is at 336 E. College Avenue, Suite 304, Tallahassee, FL 32301 Call 321-283-5255, ext. 140, or email jfogler@flpress.com.

Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily that of the Triangle News Leader.

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