Garret Ellison, a reporter for MLive and The Grand Rapids Press, today was named winner of PNRC’s 2018 Public Notice Journalism Award. Ellison won for a series of stories about an application submitted to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) by Nestle Waters North America to pump more groundwater from a local well. He is the first reporter in the history of the PNRC contest to be awarded for a story revealing the inadequacy of government website notice.
Ellison will receive a $500 award and a trip to Washington, D.C., where he will be honored at a special March 15 dinner at the National Press Club.
The New Year again brought with it a flood of new legislation curtailing the role of newspapers as the official source of public notice. Fortunately, none of the new bills appear to be an immediate threat and several have already been killed in committee or face imminent demise.
Here’s an overview of some of the states that have been most active since legislatures returned to work.
In comments filed last month with the Federal Communication Commission, the Public Notice Resource Center criticized Commissioners who mocked opposition to a recent proposal that would eliminate FCC rules requiring broadcasters to publish a notice in a local newspaper when they file certain license applications with the Commission.
“We were struck by the dismissive tone adopted in the statements of (some of the Commissioners) respecting the notion that local newspapers might still serve as the most effective means to deliver notice to the public,” said PNRC in its comments. “How did we reach a point where their consideration of the issue of public notice is so facile they ridicule a longstanding practice without bothering to provide any evidence that the alternative they’re promoting would be an improvement?”
PNRC has been tracking about 150 separate bills introduced in 2017 or carried over from the previous year that relate to public notice. Most would have curtailed newspaper notice in some way, but 21 percent would have created additional notice requirements. To be sure, all of the latter addressed narrow circumstances like relocating the contents of a grave or tomb in Florida, or granting flood control district easements without public auction in Arizona. Nevertheless, it’s a clear sign that many public officials understand the continuing value of print as a distribution system for public notice in the digital age.
A U.S. District Court in Michigan ruled last month that a foreclosure notice published by the Detroit Legal News did not violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act. FCRA is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of consumer credit information held by credit reporting agencies.
The case was filed earlier this year after plaintiffs Matthew and Stephanie Walker lost their home in a foreclosure proceeding. Their complaint alleged that Detroit Legal News violated their privacy rights under FCRA by publishing notice of an impending sheriff sale of the property. The notice included information about the sale and stated the Walker’s mortgage was in default and the amount they owed was $56,825.94.
Sydney Henderson is a 100-year-old widow living in a small condo at Hacienda Carmel, a senior living community in Monterey County, California. If it wasn’t for a public notice published in a newspaper, she probably would have lost her home and been booted out on the street by a bank. Her story is a textbook example of why public notice advertising still belongs in newspapers and not on obscure government websites.
Wells Fargo held the reverse mortgage Henderson secured on her condo in 1998. According to Mary Duan’s recent column in Monterey County Weekly, Henderson mistakenly believed she had enrolled in a government program that automatically rolled the property taxes into her regular mortgage payments. So she owed $24,000 in back taxes when the bank began foreclosure proceedings.
The Public Notice Resource Center filed comments early last month urging the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to reconsider its recent proposal to eliminate the newspaper notice requirement for certain permits issued under the Clean Air Act (CAA). IDEM’s proposal cited last year’s decision by the EPA to discontinue mandatory newspaper notice for such permits at the federal level. That new rule opened the door for EPA state affiliates like IDEM to follow suit.
PNRC argued that Indiana newspapers and their websites are far more effective at providing official notice than IDEM’s website. It also cautioned that highly publicized controversies at state environmental agencies in Michigan and Arkansas demonstrate that few citizens ever see notices posted on government websites.
The failure to publish proper notice is rarely punished, so it was surprising to see local officials in Maine and Illinois recently relieved of their positions as a result of breakdowns in the public notice process. The sacked officials compounded their problems with other missteps, but notice issues were at the center of both dismissals.
In Maine, Stephen Beckert was removed from his position as chairman of the Eliot Planning Board on Sept. 14 after an investigation found the board consistently failed to publish newspaper notice of its public hearings. Beckert’s dismissal was the culmination of three years of conflict with a handful of local residents, particularly citizen watchdogs Michele and Jay Meyer (pictured above). During that period, the Meyers regularly attended Planning Board meetings and “became involved in several high-profile board cases and actions,” according to the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald.
Rockingham County’s Board of Commissioners last month approved a referendum asking the state legislature to allow all government units in Rockingham to publish public notices on the county’s official website rather than in local newspapers.
The resolution specifically referenced the General Assembly’s passage two weeks earlier of Sen. Trudy Wade’s (R-Guilford) Senate Bill 181, which authorized neighboring Guilford County to move all public notices in the county from newspapers to its official website. Wade’s bill was almost identical to House Bill 205, an earlier measure she backed that passed the legislature this summer but was swiftly vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper (D). However, unlike HB 205, Wade’s latest effort to eliminate newspaper notice was drafted as a veto-proof “local” bill.
North Carolina State Sen. Trudy Wade’s battle to eliminate public notice in newspapers is set to move to a new front this week. According to the News & Record, the state legislature is expected to consider a local version of her public notice bill when it reconvenes on Wednesday.
Wade’s previous public notice bills have been state legislation. Even her measure that was vetoed in July by Gov. Roy Cooper — which had been amended minutes before it passed to focus solely on Guilford County — was a North Carolina bill. Like that bill, her latest effort would affect only Guilford County, but it has been written as a piece of local legislation. Local legislation can’t be vetoed by the governor.