EDITORIAL: Keep legal notices in plain sight

2013-02-14T00:00:00Z EDITORIAL: Keep legal notices in plain sight nwitimes.com
February 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Each year in the Indiana General Assembly, it seems, there are challenges to the principles that the public's business should be done in public and that public information should be easily accessible.

This year, there's legislation that might seem harmless but really isn't.

Among the many provisions of House Bill 1427, which is now before the Senate, is the option to let school districts publish annual financial reports on school websites but not in local newspapers.

That gives the district the ability to hide information in plain sight, to use a phrase from Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director and General Counsel Steve Key.

The information is available, but not put right in front of the public the way publication in a newspaper does.

Just look at the page views for a local government's website and compare it to the circulation of the local newspaper. And multiply that circulation by 2, because industry research shows an average of two readers for each copy of the newspaper.

Also, look at the digital divide in another significant way. A report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last April noted that 20 percent of American adults don't have access to the Internet. Not requiring publication in a local newspaper leaves those unconnected adults out of the loop for this important information about one of the most important units of local government.

Senate Bill 458, which would let all units of local government put legal notices exclusively online, seems to be going nowhere, fortunately.

A 2012 survey by Pulse Research of America showed 68.2 percent of Hoosiers preferred public notices to be in the local newspaper vs. 2.3 percent who preferred the government website.

Some of their reasons may be obvious, others less so.

Consider the four basic reasons for publishing legal notices in local newspapers:

The newspaper serves as an independent entity, creating an economic and civic interest in ensuring the notice requirements are met. Legal ads, by the way, cost far, far less per inch than advertising by private businesses -- about 7 cents on the dollar compared to other advertising.

Newspapers provide the ability to archive the information, whereas websites do not. Data on websites can be lost within months or years, frustrating historians and other researchers.

Newspapers are easily accessible to all segments of society, as legal ads should be.

Legal ads in newspapers are verifiable. It's easy to see there was no alteration from the original notice.

Allowing legal ads to be published exclusively online, on government websites, defeats all of these purposes.

It's vital that an independent, third party establish a permanent record of government spending and other official actions. Allowing publication to be exclusively online opens up a Pandora's box of opportunity for fraud, theft and numerous other misuses of the public's tax dollars with the ability for it to be hidden.

Publish that information on the website as well, fine, but make that information more prominent and accessible to the public by requiring that it be published in local newspapers.

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