Indiana law has a solid foundation on which governmental transparency has been built. Access to public meetings and records is a vital part of the democratic process, and these laws are in place to ensure and protect such access.
Three specific laws exist as cornerstones of that foundation: The Public Notice Advertising Law, the Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act. Together, they support the public’s right to know what government is doing or contemplating.
Unfortunately, it seems as if efforts to erode this foundation emerge with every session of the General Assembly.
Among several troubling pieces of legislation that have been introduced this session is one from Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, to eliminate the requirement that local governments place and pay for public notices in their local newspapers. In its place would be the wholly inadequate stipulation that such notices be placed on government websites.
Eliminating public notice advertising is something sought by local governments through their lobbying associations. They claim they can save money by eliminating public notice advertising yet still fulfill transparency obligations by posting notices cheaply on their own websites.
The issue places the state’s newspapers, long known as strong advocates for access to government proceedings and records, in an awkward position. Critics complain that newspapers try to preserve public notice advertising laws because of their monetary interests.
While newspapers do get revenue from public notices, it’s unfair to suggest that it taints the view of those of us who willingly accept the responsibility of reporting on the activities of government for our readership. In most communities in the state, newspapers are the only media which provides in-depth coverage of public meetings and publishes numerous public records and notices — free of charge — pertaining to government activity.
It should also be noted that most government websites have an extremely low number of visitors, while newspapers in their communities have a strong base of readers. For example, the Tribune-Star has more than 21,000 paid subscribers.
The point of public notice advertising is to put information in places where people not necessarily looking for it are likely to find it. And that’s what transparency is all about. Truly effective public notices put the responsibility of disseminating information in the hands if an independent third party. They can be archived for future reference, are easily accessible to a wide segment of society and are legally verifiable. Newspapers fit those criteria. Government websites do not.
What’s more, independent studies show that Hoosiers want public notice advertising published in newspapers.
n Pulse Research of America survey last spring reported that 71.6 percent of respondents said they would prefer public notices published in the newspaper rather than on a government website.
n American Opinion Research also reported in a survey that 73 percent of Hoosiers said local and state governments should be required to publish public notice ads — paid ads — in newspapers.
Newspapers remain the single most viable means of providing information about government activities in the state’s communities, large and small. There should be no public notice shortcuts made available to government entities just to save a few bucks.
There is a legislative hearing today on the bill to do away with public notice advertising in newspapers in the Senate Local Government Committee.
We urge Wabash Valley legislators to oppose this bill. We ask citizens to urge their legislators to do the same.