Another Governor Takes Aim at Public Notice

We have found a governor whose animus for newspapers may exceed Chris Christie’s.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (photo on left) dislikes the papers in his state so intensely he vetoed a bill last month requiring them to continue to post public notices on their own websites at no extra charge to the state. Overwhelming majorities in the legislature overrode his veto the following week.

“I believe that it is good policy for legal notices to be posted online,” LePage explained in his veto statement (PDF). “However, I also believe that requiring legal notices to be printed in newspapers at a fee does nothing but prop up a dying, antiquated industry. The requirement is a taxpayer subsidy of the worst sort.” LePage encouraged legislators to “explore whether we may eliminate the mandate” requiring legal notices to be published in newspapers.

The bill LePage vetoed is similar to laws in about a dozen other states that require newspapers that publish notices to also run them on their websites and/or on their state press association’s statewide public notice site. When Maine’s version of the law originally passed in 2013, it included a sunset provision scheduling its repeal on Jan. 1, 2018. The Legislature passed a law earlier this year canceling the repeal. The Maine Senate, controlled by LePage’s own Republican Party, overrode his veto 32-0. The vote in the Democrat-controlled House was 121-22.

Don’t tell LePage, but at least three other bills still being considered in Maine would adopt new categories of newspaper notice.

The tide has turned in several other states where newspapers once appeared to be vulnerable to catastrophic public notice legislation.

In Nevada, legislation that would have allowed broadcaster websites to publish notices died on April 14, the deadline for bills to be reported out of committee. The bill was sponsored by Senate Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas), who allowed it to expire because it didn’t have enough votes to pass the Senate Government Affairs Committee. In his message to Nevada Press Association members, Executive Director Barry Smith gave special thanks to NPA board member Scott Sibley, publisher of the Nevada Legal News and a former Assemblyman, for traveling to Carson City several times last month to talk to legislators.

This was the third straight session in which Nevada broadcasters pushed a version of this bill but it was still poorly drafted, says Smith. The bill’s shortcomings — for example, it would have authorized anyone with an FCC license to publish notices in Nevada, even those who broadcast outside the state — may have emboldened legislators otherwise loath to oppose a bill sponsored by the Senate leader. Several other minor public notice bills in Nevada that would modify newspaper notice in limited circumstances are still pending.

Publishers in Wisconsin breathed a sigh of relief early last month when the Joint Budget Committee removed language from the state budget bill that would have moved a significant category of public notice from newspapers to government websites. Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett says hundreds of phone calls from newspaper readers in opposition to the budget provisions had a big impact. (Legislators in New York also removed a proposal in their own state budget last month that would have eliminated from newspapers bid notices for public works contracts, according to New York News Publishers Association Executive Director Diane Kennedy.)

Things are also looking up in Missouri. “No news is good news,” says Missouri Press Association Executive Director Mark Maassen about separate bills that would move foreclosure notices to law firm websites and allow government notices to be published on the Secretary of State’s website. Although both bills were reported out of committee earlier this year neither has yet been scheduled for a floor vote. With less than two weeks remaining in the current session and a deadline looming to pass the state’s budget, it looks like newspapers and citizens in Missouri may dodge a bullet.

The North Carolina Press Association is sanguine about Sen. Trudy Wade’s bill that would move all government notice in the state from newspapers to county websites, even though it passed the Senate last week on a 30-19 vote. Their confidence stems from a political stalemate that appears to have halted the bill’s momentum. According to NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey, Sen. Wade’s bill and a NCPA-supported compromise now both sit in House Rules Committee and neither is expected to move. Like the bill in Maine vetoed by Gov. LePage, NCPA’s compromise legislation would require newspapers to run notices on their websites and on the press association’s statewide site. NCPA members aren’t happy the bill didn’t get a floor vote before the crossover deadline, but if that’s the price they need to pay to kill Wade’s bill it’s a trade-off they’ll gladly accept. It effectively ends the perennial battle over public notice for the current legislative session, which ends in 2018.

Meanwhile, several bills that slightly modify existing public notice law in other states either passed and/or were signed by governors in April:

• Maryland: HB426 / SB311 exempts community colleges from posting bids in local newspapers in favor of eMaryland Marketplace. HB1008 / SB1010 increases the incidence of newspaper notice required for liquor license applications in Harford County while reducing the number of publications required to publish licensing decisions.

• Michigan: SB129 requires newspaper notice of mining permit applications.

• Montana: SB42 adds a newspaper notice requirement for soliciting public comment regarding proposed adjustments in the location of major building facilities. HB103 expands permissible notice of the appointment of boards created for the purpose of counting absentee ballots in an election, to include radio or television broadcasts in addition to newspapers.

• New Mexico: When it was introduced, HB453 would have moved public notice of annual school district accountability reports from newspapers to school district websites. By the time it was signed last month by the governor, it maintained newspaper notice and added the requirement that it be posted on school district websites.

• Oklahoma: HB1949 originally required local government units to publish newspaper notice of impending votes on the issuance of bonds. Before it was signed last month by the governor, it was amended to require newspaper notice only if the government unit doesn’t have its own website to publish the information.

• Utah: HB117 relaxed the state’s public notice eligibility law by extending the definition of newspapers to include publications that don’t have a U.S. Postal Service periodical permit but that publish at least monthly and contain at least 25 percent non-advertising content of “local or general interest”.

• Virginia: When the outstanding balance is less than $500, HB1909 allows notice of nonjudicial sale of tax-delinquent real estate to be satisfied by a posting on the state Treasurer’s or local government’s website, in lieu of newspaper publication.

NC County Gets Great Return on Delinquent Tax Notice

Nobody reads the paper anymore?

Tell that to Moore County Tax Administrator Gary Briggs, whose office recently collected 60 percent of the $1.37 million it was owed by delinquent taxpayers after publishing their names in the local newspaper, The Pilot.

Briggs published the list on March 8 as a 12-page special section in The Pilot, at a cost of $8,000. A month later his office had collected almost $821,000 of its outstanding tax debt, according to The Pilot.

“It still turns out to be an effective mechanism,” Briggs told The Pilot about the special section. “People look for other people’s names. It might make some more likely to pay next time. It is just one part of the process for collecting property taxes.”

Like other jurisdictions in North Carolina, Moore County is required by law to publish a list of delinquent taxpayers and the amounts they owe on various parcels of property. The legislative mandate is necessary even though the county repeatedly informs citizens directly by mail when their taxes are due. Briggs said that despite these warnings some people are still surprised when their name shows up on the list of tax liens.

“We get people calling us saying they did not know they were delinquent,” he told The Pilot.

When newspaper notice provides such great results, why would public officials continue to introduce bills that would move public notice from newspapers to government websites? “Once you unzip this wolf from its sheep costume,” said The Pilot in an editorial, “you get down to the real intent: selectively punishing an industry.”

Nevada the Latest Public Notice Trouble Spot

Legislation that would authorize radio and television station websites to publish public notices in Nevada has become a serious threat to newspapers in the state, according to the Nevada Press Association (NPA). Senate Bill 218 would establish broadcaster websites as an alternative to newspapers for all legislatively mandated notices in the state, including foreclosure and other private-party notices.

A hearing on the bill was held last week. NPA Executive Director Barry Smith and Nevada Legal News Publisher Scott Sibley testified in opposition to the bill. Smith reminded the committee newspapers in the state already post notices on their own websites at no additional cost to the print version, and all of the notices are aggregated on a statewide side operated by NPA. “The broadcasters association may tell you (SB 218) offers a choice,” said Smith, “but the choice is available only to the government: to choose whether to put a notice in print and online, or whether to put it online only. That takes away the choice for residents and citizens of how they want to read their notices.”

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas), who is viewed by many observers in the state as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate or governor in 2018. NPA expects the legislation to reach the Senate floor by April 14, the last day for a bill to crossover to the other chamber. Democrats also have a majority in the Nevada Assembly, where they hold almost two-thirds of the seats since regaining control of the lower house in the 2016 election.

This is the third straight session the broadcasters have promoted a version of this bill in the Nevada legislature. Two previous attempts in 2013 and 2015 fell short.

SB 218 is unusual in a couple of respects. First, it is sponsored by a Democrat. A significant majority of the bills in other states that would move public notice to websites are being pushed by Republicans. Moreover, two other bills in the Nevada legislature that are sponsored by Democrats, including one introduced by Senator Ford, would create a new legislative mandate requiring newspaper notice to publicize polling places.

The bill is also unusual in that it would authorize non-government websites to publish public notices. But Nevada isn’t the only state this year where private interests are lobbying for the right to move public notice from newspapers to their websites.

In Vermont, a Senate committee held a hearing last month on a bill that would allow “electronic news media” to publish government notices in lieu of newspapers. Although the bill defines electronic news media in general terms, Vermont Press Association (VPA) Executive Director Mike Donoghue says he was told the bill was proposed by VTDigger, a non-profit news website based in Montpelier, the state capital.

Like the Nevada bill, Vermont S. 97 is sponsored by Democratic members of the state Senate. The few proponents of the legislation who attended the hearing probably knew they were in trouble when one of its sponsors — a stalwart defender of open government and a free press, according to Donoghue — noted in her opening statement she had issues with the bill. The measure is dormant for now since it wasn’t reported out of committee before the state’s crossover deadline. A slightly different version of the bill in the House has seen no action.

Private interests are also pursuing public notice advertising in Missouri, where two bills would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to the websites of the law firms that serve as trustees in real estate transactions in the state. When we reported on the bills last month, they headed the list of public notice concerns of the Missouri Press Association (MPA). More than five weeks have passed since committee hearings were held on both bills and neither has been scheduled for a vote, but HB 428 may get one this afternoon when it is set to be discussed in an executive session.

MPA is now also more concerned about Senate Bill 47, which would allow government notices to be published on the website of Missouri’s Secretary of State. The bill has not yet been placed on the Senate calendar even though it passed in committee by a 3-2 vote, which provides opponents with some comfort. However, its sponsor is highly motivated and can add it as an amendment to a bill on the floor at any time. MPA is actively planning for that possibility.

Like Nevada’s press association, the North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) is gearing up to fight a bill similar to legislation that failed to pass in the state’s two previous sessions. Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) is once again the primary force behind the effort to pass a sweeping revision of the state’s public notice laws, but this time she has added a political sweetener. In addition to moving most public notice advertising to county websites, S. 343 and H. 432 set the rates counties can charge private parties and other government units for publishing the notices. The companion bills also establish an elaborate scheme for the disbursal of funds generated by the advertising. The latter provision allowed Sen. Wade to claim when she introduced the legislation that it would “increase local salary supplements for public school teachers.”

Sen. Wade also noted in her statement “the bill incorporates provisions supported by newspaper publishers.” She was able to make that claim because her bill includes two sections supported by NCPA as compromise legislation in previous sessions. One would compel newspapers to publish notices on their own websites or on the NCPA website. The other would limit the price they can charge for government notices requiring more than one placement. In 2015, the compromise bill passed the North Carolina House on a 115-4 vote but was shelved in the Senate. Late last week, a new bill containing those provisions was introduced in the House with NCPA’s support. A Senate version is scheduled to be introduced tomorrow.

Sen. Wade is not known as an advocate for government transparency nor is she a great admirer of the newspapers in her state. But she is a determined foe. In 2015, she was able to move an earlier version of her public notice legislation through the Senate, where it passed 26-23 before dying on the House floor. NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey says Sen. Wade’s public notice bill isn’t the only legislation she has sponsored this session that puts newspapers in its crosshairs. She also introduced a bill that would eliminate an exemption in the state’s labor laws and would reclassify newspaper carriers as full-time employees.

In Arkansas, two bills that eliminate categories of newspaper notice passed last month, while two other efforts to curtail public notice in the state were killed. One of the bills that was enacted moves annual school performance reports from local newspapers to school district websites. The other authorizes counties to publish delinquent-tax lists related to real property mineral rights on the Association of Arkansas Counties website instead of newspapers. The latter still requires counties to provide newspaper notice of the website address whenever a list is published. Arkansas Press Association (APA) Executive Director Tom Larimer says 25 of the 75 counties in the state are affected by mineral rights.

Fortunately, the most significant public notice threat in the state was withdrawn by its sponsor. HB 1836 would have allowed county governments to move all hearing notices and other “official acts” from newspapers to their own websites. It also would have authorized municipalities to post the full text of bylaws and ordinances on their own websites instead of newspapers. Meanwhile, another bill in Arkansas that would have eliminated a category of newspaper notice was amended before it passed. As a result of the amendment, SB 364 still requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to publish application and permit notices in newspapers. The new law now also requires ADEQ to post permitting decisions on its website.

Larimer said that APA faced a rough legislative session in which the association expended a great deal of political capital fighting efforts to increase official secrecy through changes to the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

Here’s a roundup of public notice activity in a few more states:

California: The California Newspaper Publishers Association’s legislative bulletin reports that last month the association convinced the sponsors of three different bills that would have repealed newspaper notice to amend their bills to restore the publication requirement. The bills would have eliminated newspaper notice of government contracts, property-tax due dates and the exercise of self-storage liens. A fourth measure that would eliminate newspaper notice for unclaimed property passed out of committee on a 10-0 vote, but CNPA says that prior to the vote the bill’s sponsor agreed to work with the newspaper business to ensure the notices continue to be published in newspapers.

Idaho: Late last month a bill was introduced that would allow all government notices to be published on government websites in lieu of newspapers. H. 332 is unique in that it would require government entities to place an index tab on their homepage clearly marked “Public Notices” and to maintain “historical record of the posting, including the time and date of the posting.”

Iowa: A Senate bill that would have stripped public notice from newspapers died for now when it failed to reach the floor for a vote before by the state’s crossover deadline. Senate File 158 even had trouble making its way out of a subcommittee despite the fact that the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa), is on the committee and is a member of the majority party. As a matter of political courtesy in Iowa, legislation is almost always passed out of subcommittee when its sponsor is in the majority, says Iowa Newspaper Association Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank. Chelgren, who has made no secret of his distaste for his local newspaper, the Ottumwa Courier, briefly made national headlines in February when NBC News reported he inflated his academic credentials.

North Dakota: A resolution requesting a joint committee to study the costs of public notice and recommend “potential notification alternatives” passed both houses. The resolution declares that state agencies spend $3.7 million every two years on public notice, a preposterously inflated figure.

Letter: Public Notice Might as Well Have Been in Swahili

The following is a letter to the editor of the Longmont (Colo.) Times-Call published on the newspaper’s website on March 9.

To the Editor:

What is public notice 02-2017-14 published on March 3, 2017, about? Vacation? What is a PUD? Where is Blue Vista? How can anyone be expected to make comments or decisions based on a map that is printed so small that it is unreadable — it could have been in Swahili for all it is worth.

When I see very small print, I immediately think someone is trying to hide something from me. Seems to me that the legal requirements for public notice would be better served with a paragraph or two explaining what the ordinance is about — in plain English with reference to where the documents can be seen in person or where they could be reviewed online.

Bill Butler, Longmont

Times-Call Editor’s note: A PUD, or planned unit development, is a zoning district that encourages land planning and site designs that conform with community quality-of-life benchmarks and that achieve a high level of environmental sensitivity, energy efficiency and aesthetics, among other goals. Blue Vista is a development on Quail Road, just south of the Longmont Recreation Center, that opened in 2007.

NY Development Directors Recommend Publishing Notice in Multiple Newspapers

At its March 23 meeting, the Empire State Development Board of Directors was discussing a Staten Island development project when the issue of public notice arose. The board had satisfied its statutory obligation by posting notice of the project in the New York Daily News, but had received complaints that notice should also have been published in the Staten Island Advance.

During a brief discussion of the matter, Director Robert Dyson (on far right in photo) encouraged the Board to exceed the legislative mandate by publishing notices of its projects in multiple newspapers. “We should endeavor to make sure we never hear … that people didn’t get enough notice,” said Dyson, who later added, “It’s not a costly thing” to run public notices in newspapers.

Director Joyce Miller agreed. “It presents a more community-friendly impact” to publish development-project notices in local newspapers, she said.

Video of the meeting is available here. The discussion about public notice begins at 55:58 and runs less than four minutes.

South Dakotan Produces News Series From Public Notices

Public notice isn’t a big deal to the nine South Dakota lawmakers who introduced House Bill 1167, a piece of legislation that would have moved municipal notices from newspapers to websites in many S.D. cities, if it hadn’t been killed in committee. To Brian Hunhoff (photo on left), public notice is absolutely vital.
 
Hunhoff, a contributing editor at the Yankton County Observer, has been demonstrating just how important it is with “In a Minutes Notice,” a new weekly column based on news culled from meeting minutes and legal notices published in the Observer and other newspapers in the Mount Rushmore state.
 
“I’ve been meaning to do this series for a long time, but could never seem to find the time,” says Hunhoff. “Then I read the (PNRC) story in the National Newspaper Association’s PubAux about all the public notice battles taking place around the country and decided it would be a good year to finally make time and get it done.”
 
Hunhoff has already published eight public notice-based columns (see PDFs linked below) and plans to write at least six more in the coming weeks. They include deep dives on particular subjects, like the salaries of local public officials or the frequency and length of their executive sessions. He has also reviewed meeting minutes and budgets from 12 similar-size cities and counties to learn how Yankton County and City of Yankton rank in comparison.
 
Hunhoff admits the project has required a great deal of research. He has spent many hours studying public notices in Observer bound volumes going back 40 years to uncover trends relating to tax-exempt properties, delinquent taxpayer lists, and highway department spending.
 
His commitment to the project is particularly remarkable when one considers that newspapering is no longer Hunhoff’s primary job. He was in the newspaper business full-time for 23 years until he sold the Observer in 2002. Current publishers are twin sisters Kathy Church and Kristy Wyland.
 
Hunhoff has been a part-time contributor to the 40-year-old weekly since selling it. His full-time job now is Yankton County Register of Deeds, where he takes pride in operating the best document archive — he calls it a “library” — in the state. He saves his public notice reporting for evenings and weekends.
 
Hunhoff says research for the public notice column inspires ideas for editorials. He has written four related opinion pieces for the paper since the first “In a Minutes Notice” story was published in mid-February.
 
His real goal, though, is to highlight the value of public notices in newspapers and help Observer readers understand their importance. He knows fewer people would read them if they were moved to the Internet — “out of sight, out of mind” he says — and that concerns him.
 
Hunhoff has used photos of local officials, town halls, a snowplow and a fire truck to illustrate the articles. Over 90 percent of the content is distilled from public notices. “It’s not a lot of fancy writing – just a straightforward presentation of facts gleaned from minutes and other notices,” he said. “I study numbers in a particular area until I find a newsworthy trend. Giving these stories a lead with a news hook has been the key to pulling readers in.”
 
“Reader response to the stories has been very good,” he added. “People seem to find them interesting and that’s the goal: To help folks understand how much important information is available in public notices in newspapers.”

PDFs of Brian Hunhoff’s first eight columns:

Kindle, Nelson lead list of local official salaries
Public dismissed from fewer public meetings in 2016
Yankton Fire Dept. spends 17.5% of budget on salaries
Yankton Co. Commission lowest paid in large S.D. counties
Yankton city commissioners earn $5,385 per year
Town board annual pay ranges from $480 to $1,500
Yankton Co. spends less per person than similar counties
Irene budgets $50,000 per year for law enforcement

Wisconsin, Missouri on High Alert as Public Notice Bills Churn Through State Legislatures

More than 120 public notice bills have been introduced in at least 37 different states through the first week of March, raising varying levels of concern among newspaper publishers and state press associations around the country. The only states where the danger signs are flashing red, however, appear to be Wisconsin and Missouri.

Newspapers in Wisconsin face two separate challenges. The immediate threat is Assembly Bill 70 and Senate Bill 42, companion bills that would authorize city councils and other local government boards to publish meeting proceedings on their own websites. The legislation has 41 co-sponsors, including six Democrats. AB70 is scheduled for a hearing today and defeating it promises to be an uphill battle for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association because four of the five Republicans on the nine-member committee are co-sponsors. WNA hopes to maintain the support of the Democrats on the committee and to pick up at least one Republican member to defeat the bill, according to Executive Director Beth Bennett.

Even if the companion bills are defeated, meeting proceedings could still be moved from newspapers to government websites, along with dozens of other Class 1 Notices, in the budget proposal submitted last month by Gov. Scott Walker. Class 1 Notices require a single insertion and provide information about government — like budgets, ordinances and meeting minutes — unrelated to citizen rights or actions. The budget measure targeting these notices was introduced as part of a larger effort to reduce government printing costs by moving certain printed material to government websites. The transition from print to web had been recommended by a state commission. To the extent the recommendation pertains to public notices, it directly contradicts the findings of last year’s legislative study committee that unanimously supported the continued publication of public notices in newspapers.

The Walker administration recently issued a fiscal note estimating the state would realize annual savings of $24,000 by eliminating the Class 1 Notices. WNA submitted a report last year to the study committee pegging the cost of government notices that ran in 70 percent of the newspapers in the state in 2015 at $1.38 million.

The challenge in Missouri may not be as steep in political terms as the one in Wisconsin, but the scope of the potential loss to newspapers in the state is significantly larger. Senate Bill 47 would allow government officials to publish all of their notices on a “website established and maintained by the secretary of state in lieu of publication in a newspaper.” And companion bills in the House and Senate would move all foreclosure notices in the state to websites operated by the law firms that serve as trustees in the foreclosure process. (Missouri allows non-judicial foreclosures.)

Committee hearings were held on all three bills in the last three weeks. SB47 was the first to receive a hearing, and the fact that three weeks have passed without a vote is a positive sign according to Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. Missouri’s legislative research committee issued a fiscal note prior to the hearing estimating that by charging $10 per notice the Secretary of State’s public notice website would generate as much as $955,000 in additional annual revenue for the state. The estimate assumed two full-time equivalents would be required to post 100-300 notices per day on the site.

The foreclosure measures may pose a tougher challenge, says Maassen, who described the hearings on both bills as “tough.” Maassen recounted a particularly squeamish moment in last week’s hearing on the House bill, when a lawyer from one of the two large firms pushing the legislation made a clever, if fatuous, point about obsolescence by holding up, in order, a Sears catalog, an encyclopedia, a phone book, a record album and a particularly thin recent edition of The Kansas City Star. The companion bills would eliminate a provision in current Missouri law forbidding foreclosure lawyers from publishing newspapers for the purpose of running their own notices. They would also allow law firms to charge the same rates for notices as the newspapers currently authorized to publish them, making it clear that the legislation has nothing to do with saving money.

In terms of sheer numbers, publishers in Illinois have the most to contend with. The Illinois Press Association is now tracking 19 different public notice bills, only two of which they support. Most unique among those bills are several that would authorize government bodies and school districts to exempt themselves from “unfunded mandates,” including newspaper notice requirements.

Illinois is also facing a bill that would allow courts to waive the newspaper notice requirement for name-change applications if they find good cause to do so. Evidence the petitioner or another person affected by the change have “been the victim of stalking or assaultive behavior” or that publication would put either in “physical danger” would constitute such cause. In Nevada, courts already have authority to waive the publication requirement if it could endanger the personal safety of someone who submits an application to change their name. Nevertheless, a hearing was held last week on a bill that would go even further, explicitly quashing the requirement if the reason for the change is to conform a name with an individual’s gender identity.

Meanwhile, several bills introduced earlier this year have already been withdrawn or defeated, including legislation in South Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.

In South Dakota, a House committee voted 11-1 on Feb. 9 to kill a bill that would have allowed cities with population above 5,000 to designate an “official Internet website” where they could publish their notices in lieu of newspapers. According to the South Dakota Newspaper Association, the only vote in favor of House Bill 1167 was cast by its sponsor. SDNA and the governor’s office both testified against it.

The Kentucky Press Association reports that a bill that would have allowed school districts to publish their annual financial statements on their own websites is dead for the current legislative session. The defeat of Senate Bill 118 puts to rest for the moment the bad memories Kentucky publishers have of the period between 2002 and 2015, when school districts ran the statements on their own websites as a result of language that had been added to the state budget. According to KPA, the newspaper notice requirement was resuscitated last year, when Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed that provision in the 2016 budget at the same time he vetoed another budget measure that would have allowed all public agencies in the state to move most of their public notices to government websites.

School boards in neighboring Tennessee were also dealt a blow in the public notice arena last week. Companion bills that would have allowed the boards to advertise sales of surplus property on the web instead of newspapers were withdrawn by their House and Senate sponsors. According to the Tennessee Press Association, TPA members who called the sponsors were told the School Boards Association had not adequately explained the bill.

A House bill in Georgia that would have added important new notice requirements died last week when it failed to cross over to the Senate on the last day for bills to pass one chamber and transfer to the other for consideration. The bill would have required newspaper notice when power companies submit proposals to the state’s Environmental Protection Division to dump coal ash into landfills or to dump water from coal ash ponds into nearby waterways. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Jones, argued at a hearing that posting notice on EPD’s website and providing notification to the local governing authority wasn’t enough. Jones told the committee he wanted to require “true local public notification” and “(t)he best avenue we have to do that today is the publication of ads in the local newspaper, or public organ as they’ve often called.”

South Dakota Reporter Wins Public Notice Journalism Award

Amanda Fanger, a reporter for Reporter & Farmer, a weekly newspaper in rural Day County, South Dakota, today was named winner of the 2017 Public Notice Journalism Award. Fanger won for a story that scratched below the surface of a public notice (PDF) to reveal a potential embezzlement scheme in one of the small towns within her paper’s coverage area.

Fanger will receive a $500 award and a free trip to Washington, D.C., where she will be honored at a March 16 dinner at the National Press Club.

Jim Lockwood of The Scranton (Penn.) Times-Tribune and Victor Parkins of The Milan (Tenn.) Mirror-Exchange were named winners of second- and third-place, respectively. Lockwood won the Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015.

“There were many worthy entries submitted in this year’s contest, so the winners should be especially proud of their great work,” said PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co., which sponsored the prize. “Reporting on public notices is another way newspapers serve their readers and inform their communities.”

Fanger followed up on an obscure reference to “employee dishonesty” in the minutes of a town board meeting that were published in March 2016 as a public notice in Reporter & Farmer. She discovered that a recent legislative audit of the finances of Grenville, South Dakota (population: 60) had concluded that the town’s former financial officer might have embezzled as much as $72,000. Digging a little deeper, Fanger learned the same person was being prosecuted for using a stolen credit card.

“In the space of the three pages containing her entry, Fanger had five bylines and a photo credit, making her enterprise in delving below the surface of the official notice even more impressive,” said the judges who made the selection. They also noted that the citizens of Day County might never have learned about the embezzlement allegations if Fanger hadn’t read the notice in her paper and taken the extra step to get the real story.

“No newspaper, no matter how big, can make it to every public meeting in its coverage area,” said Reporter & Farmer Co-Publisher John Suhr in an editorial published in the same issue (PDF) as Fanger’s story. “It is because of public notices, however, that we are able to see their actions and follow up to help explain to the taxpayers what their board is doing.”

Jim Lockwood’s entry included more than a dozen articles published in the Times-Tribune in 2015, in which he used public notices as sources for his reporting, including stories about infrastructure financing, specialty taxes, home foreclosure blight, rental-unit registries, tax sales, grant requests, cell-antenna disputes and fair-housing requirements.

Lockwood is “the quintessential example of a journalist who scours public notices to report stories that would otherwise remain hidden,” said the judges. “Through a combination of reportorial tenacity and generous applications of elbow grease, he uses the notices published in his paper to report stories that help Scranton residents understand a myriad of issues important to the development of their city. It is no overstatement to suggest that Lockwood is a public notice wizard whose work provides a veritable lesson in how a city is managed.”

In addition to being a previous winner of the national Public Notice Journalism Award, Lockwood has won the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s public notice reporting contest for the last three years.

Victor Parkins’ story was based on a public notice placed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announcing that a local nursing home was out of compliance with its requirements. Within a month of the publication of his story, the health care provider had been fined over $2 million by federal and state officials and was making plans to transfer residents to other facilities. “Parkin made the connection between the original notice and the ultimate fate of the nursing home to produce well-reported and well-sourced coverage of this important story,” said the judges.

Serving as the judges this year were David Jackson, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter of the Chicago Tribune; Marc Karlinsky, editor of the Chicago Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer; and Charles Whitaker, associate dean and journalism professor of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The Public Notice Journalism Award was established in 2013 by the Public Notice Resource Center, a consortium of newspaper organizations supporting public notice. The award is intended to encourage journalists to incorporate public notices into their reporting.

Flood of Public Notice Bills Hits State Legislatures

At least 62 bills relating to public notice in newspapers have been introduced in 25 different states through the first week of February, according to a review of bill-tracking software used by the Public Notice Resource Center. In addition, no fewer than 16 other bills targeting public notice in three states carried over from 2016 and are still active.

Many of the new bills merely add or change requirements for particular categories of notice, but at least 12 states are considering legislation that would move all or most of their official notices from newspapers to websites operated or controlled by government units. The potential that any of these bills will become law varies by state, according to newspaper lobbyists, but nobody is taking any of them lightly.

In Connecticut, several different bills that could eliminate newspaper notice in some form or fashion were introduced in the House in January, each by a different Republican member of that body.

In Michigan, the second bill introduced in the House this year would create separate “tiers” of public notice, each allowing or requiring some level of notice by government website. House Bill 4002, which would phase out newspaper notice by 2024, is a “replica” of a bill introduced in the last two legislative sessions by a former representative, according to the Michigan Press Association.

The bill in Kansas that would allow notices to be published on designated “internet websites” is also similar to legislation that has been introduced in the state in the past, according to Kansas Press Association Executive Director Doug Anstaett. It was read in the House last week on the same day KPA members were visiting the capital for the association’s annual lobbying day.

In Missouri, bills have been introduced that could move both government and foreclosure notices out of newspapers. Senate Bill 47 would permit all notices required by law or the courts to be published on an “official government legal notice website established and maintained by the secretary of state.” The bill would allow the secretary of state to charge $10 for each notice. Separate companion bills in the Missouri House and Senate would allow foreclosure notices to be published on websites “hosted by an entity that maintains such website for the purposes of providing web-based notice of foreclosure sales.”

Legislation in South Dakota and Virginia would permit jurisdictions meeting certain population thresholds to move their public notices to government websites. In South Dakota, House Bill 1167 would allow municipalities with population above 5,000 to designate an “official Internet website” that could be used to publish notices in lieu of newspapers. The bill would also require the municipalities to publish two annual newspaper notices specifying where to find documents and other information relating to their notices. A hearing on HB 1167 is scheduled for this Thursday.

In Virginia, House Bill 286 would allow localities with populations of 50,000 or above to satisfy notice requirements by publishing notices on their own websites, or by broadcasting them on a local radio or TV station. Another bill in the Virginia House would allow cities within certain counties in the Washington, D.C. area to post notices on their websites in lieu of newspapers. Both bills were introduced in January 2016 and were carried over to the current session by voice vote.

The two public notice bills in New Jersey that received so much attention in December also carried over to the current session. Governor Chris Christie, who vigorously lobbied for the bills’ passage, has served notice that he will continue to pursue the issue in 2017. Christie issued a letter last month (pdf) claiming that his “office had uncovered additional information that demonstrates the amount of money wasted (on public notice in newspapers) is exorbitant.”

Most of these bills would provide government units with discretion over whether to publish notices in newspapers or on their own websites, which would give government officials the power to punish local papers for coverage they deemed insufficient. However, Iowa Senate File 158, sponsored by 11 Republican Senators, would completely eliminate newspapers’ traditional role of providing notice, requiring all government notices in the state to be published on government websites.

Bills that would permit most public notices to be published on government websites have also been introduced in Illinois, New York, Oregon and Texas. The Oregon bill would move the notices to the websites of associations that represent counties, cities and other state government units. One Texas bill would allow political subdivisions in the state to satisfy notice requirements by posting them on “a social media website.” Another would allow them to publish notices on “any other form of media”.

Not all of the public notice legislation introduced this year would subvert government transparency. At least 22 bills would establish or enhance newspaper notice in particular categories, like gravesite relocations (Florida), government budgets (Mississippi), redevelopment plans (Nebraska), bond measures (Oklahoma, Texas) and issuance of cannabis licenses (New Mexico). Minnesota and Nevada were blessed with three bills in each state — four in Minnesota if you count companion bills — that would increase newspaper notice.

Links to Some Bills Cited Above

Researchers Rush to Preserve Data on Government Websites

For over 200 years, public notices have been published in newspapers in part as a consequence of the inviolability of newsprint. Legislators have always understood that when they passed laws requiring notice of official actions to be published in newspapers, a record of the notice would be easy to authenticate and would remain in newspaper archives in perpetuity.

A recent conference of independent researchers provides an excellent reminder that government websites fail miserably at meeting that traditional public-notice standard.

According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, about 100 researchers met in Philadelphia last month to participate in the University of Pennsylvania’s Data Refuge “hackathon,” to copy important environmental data that they fear may disappear from government websites for political reasons. The archivists, librarians, tech workers and students “hunched over computers” and made notations on white-boards as they raced to preserve climate data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that was potentially endangered by the incoming Trump Administration.

But regardless of whether their worst fears turn out to be valid, government websites are not a reliable place to store important information, assistant director for digital scholarship at Penn Laurie Allen told StateImpact, a collaboration between local NPR stations in the Pennsylvania.

“The internet is a terribly unstable way to keep information available,” said Allen. “A huge number of references to websites no longer work.”

Within hours of its inauguration, the Trump Administration demonstrated that the researchers who met at Penn were prescient, as reports quickly circulated about information that had been erased from the White House and other federal agency websites.