Bill threatens transparency
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the Sun-Gazette continues its Right-to-Know Project. Stories in this series will run occasionally and will be signaled by an R2K Project logo.)
How is government spending your money? What changes are being enacted that impact you?
As a taxpayer, those are key questions that deserve to be answered. One way to stay informed is through reading public notices in local community newspapers.
A proposed state Senate bill would remove the requirement that public notices be published in a newspaper of general circulation and instead would allow notices to be posted on assorted government websites.
“Public notices are required legal advertisements placed in newspapers by the government, businesses and individuals so the public knows what’s going on in the community and has a chance to participate in a decision before it happens,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Newspapers make sense as 83 percent of Pennsylvania adults read a newspaper every week, according to the association.
“Some common examples (of public notices) include public meeting notices, local government contract notices and requests for bids, local government tax notices, local government proposed annual budgets, local government proposed ordinances, sheriffs’ ads related to foreclosed real estate and seized property, estate notices (wills), corporate legal notices (incorporation and fictitious name registration),” Melewsky said, adding there are many more examples.
Sun-Gazette Publisher Bernard A. Oravec said public notice publication in newspapers is an important part of the democratic process.
“Public notices in local newspapers give the average citizen an opportunity to participate in the democratic process,” Oravec said. “To remove public notices would make it harder to do business and to find out what is going on in the community.”
Public notices may also appear online, but only if they are in newspapers. However, the pending state Senate bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Robbins, R-Greenville, would “change the requirements and permit online advertising on government websites” instead of in newspapers, Melewsky said.
“There is a host of problems relating to that,” said Paula Knudsen, director of legal affairs at the association.
Not only would citizens have to monitor multiple websites instead of getting the information from one source – the newspaper – but “many Pennsylvanians don’t have access to the Internet, and many government agencies don’t have websites or don’t update them,” Knudsen said.
Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP, said between 30 and 50 percent of those over age 65 are not active on the Internet and may not have access to a computer.
“Many times these (senior citizens) are those most involved in meetings … They’re the people we feel would be hurt by this move to all-Internet notices,” Landis said. “Could they find out through other means? Perhaps, but we feel they rely on that public notification in print.”
Seniors particularly vulnerable
It is important for older adults to stay active in their communities and maintain independence, and going to meetings is one way to do so, Landis said.
Plus, senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to cost increases, Oravec said.
“Senior citizens would be affected most by blocking their access to public meetings and information. This is just plain wrong, as they are the most vulnerable to increases in costs due to improper contract awarding by local governments,” Oravec said.
Others are affected, as well, as 41 percent of Pennsylvania farmers do not have Internet access; 42 percent of certain minority households do not use the Internet; 41 to 59 percent of adults living with a disability do not use the Internet at home; and 22 percent of Pennsylvanians do not use the Internet, according to a 2013 coalition letter to Robbins by the AARP, state NewsMedia Association and others.
The transparency newspaper publication gives to the process is important in the jobs arena, as well, Oravec said.
“There is a real concern that contractors would miss out on job opportunities. Without public notices, municipalities and school districts could ‘hide’ jobs and contracts on obscure websites. This would allow for greater nepotism and cronyism,” Oravec said.
The argument for the bill is that government could save money by moving the process solely online to government websites, Knudsen said.
So, what is the cost of advertising public notices in newspapers? To examine the issue on a local level, the Sun-Gazette submitted right-to-know requests to sample costs for the past two years in five nearby communities.
All sampled advertise public notices in the Sun-Gazette; however, Jersey Shore Borough advertises mostly in the Sun-Gazette and some in The Express of Lock Haven, and Williamsport advertises bids in other newspapers, as well. Muncy Borough and Williamsport do not keep records of specific public notice costs, so Sun-Gazette records were used.
In 2013, Jersey Shore Borough spent $709 on public notices from its $1.9 million general operating budget. In 2012, the borough spent $870 from a $1.4 million general operating budget.
Loyalsock Township spent $7,851 on public notices from a $4.4 million general operating budget in 2013. In 2012, the township spent $9,739 from a $4.1 million general operating budget. The public notice numbers are on the higher side because of zoning hearing board and appeals notices that year, said Bill Burdett, township manager.
Muncy Borough spent $1,629 on public notices from a $912,200 general operating budget in 2013. In 2012, the borough spent $1,119 from a $1 million general operating budget.
South Williamsport Borough spent $3,105 on public notices from a $1.9 million budget in 2013, and $2,534 from a $1.9 million budget in 2012.
Williamsport spent $13,579 on public notices in the Sun-Gazette in 2013. It had a $20.9 million general fund budget. In 2012, the city spent $8,203 and had a $19.4 million general fund budget.
Consolidation should be the real issue
Consolidation, not cutting public notices, should be the real issue, Oravec said.
“Removing public notices from local newspapers does very little to reduce the annual budget. The real issue for discussion should be consolidation. If municipalities, school districts and state legislators are serious about saving money, then they need to look at consolidation. Until then, they are just stepping over dollars to pick up pennies,” Oravec said.
In the coalition letter, the NewsMedia association and others argue the cost will be greater if the online shift is made for maintenance and security.
“Government will actually spend more money to take over public notices, due to unavoidable Information Technology costs for entering and maintaining the business of legal public notices, plus a number of other economic factors,” according to the letter.
Security another concern
Security is a real issue. If someone hacked the site and changed the information, there is no way to tell if it was posted correctly originally, whereas it can be authenticated in print, Knudsen said. Newspapers keep a publisher’s affidavit, and a copy with whoever is placing the notice.
“(The Senate bill) and others like it don’t propose a way to mirror the requirements and to show a notice actually was published and is authentic,” Knudsen said.
Plus, newspapers already have created an online, searchable database for public notices at publicnoticepa.com, at no cost to the government or taxpayers.
In the end, public notices in newspapers shine a necessary light.
“Public notices in a daily circulation newspaper allows the public to shine a light on what our public officials are up to. No public official should be allowed to operate in the dark,” Oravec said.
The bill is in the Senate Appropriations Committee.