Category Archives: Government Websites

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.

Christie’s Effort to Eliminate Newspaper Notice in NJ Stalls

chris_christieIt isn’t unusual for politicians seeking revenge for negative press coverage to retaliate by sponsoring legislation that would eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers. It is unprecedented, however, for the press to openly acknowledge the lawmaker’s intentions and to dub the legislation a “newspaper revenge bill.”

Such is the bruising nature of politics in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to move all public notices in the state to government websites was withdrawn from consideration on Monday afternoon. But the newspaper industry isn’t out of the woods yet. The bill remains active and Christie has vowed to make it his “top priority” in 2017. The speaker of the General Assembly has also announced his intention to return to the issue “very soon.”

The legislation was introduced last Monday and had the support of members of both parties, including the Republican governor and both leaders of New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature. By Thursday, it was reported out of Senate and Assembly committees with wide margins and bipartisan support and was fast-tracked for a Monday afternoon vote in both chambers. Things looked grim for the newspaper industry.

But a ferocious lobbying effort mounted by the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) and wall-to-wall coverage of the “newspaper revenge bill” by the state’s newspapers and their websites unleashed a wave of grassroots opposition that ultimately swept through the statehouse and turned things around. On Monday morning, the Democratic caucus met for several hours and by the end of the meeting it was clear to party leaders the legislation lacked support. Both houses pulled the bill from their voting agendas.

According to press reports, the legislation was the result of a backroom deal between Christie and the Democratic leaders in which each pledged to support two separate bills. In addition to the “newspaper revenge bill,” the other bill would have overridden statutory limits on the governor’s income and allowed Christie to profit from a book deal. It also would have boosted the salaries of Cabinet members, judges and other executive branch personnel, and increased legislative staff budgets.

By all accounts, the deluge of press coverage about the secretive deal-making generated widespread citizen concern, and as a result legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes were overwhelmed. By Monday morning, that grassroots uprising and Christie’s weak political support  — he has an 18 percent approval rating — had turned the tide.

During the two hearings on Thursday and the lobbying that followed, the newspaper industry george-whitewas joined by a wide range of New Jersey-based nonprofit organizations, including unions, environmentalists, and citizen groups. They were troubled by the prospect of eliminating public notice from newspapers and their websites and understood the blow to transparency that would result from spreading the notices across the websites of the state’s 1,000+ lightly trafficked government websites, many of which are haphazardly maintained.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the state’s Association of Counties officially backed the bill, but neither appeared to testify at the hearings. Clearly, support among government officials wasn’t unanimous. “We rely on local press to cover planning boards and township committee meetings,” GOP Mayor Nicolas Platt, of Harding Township, told the Star-Ledger. “This is a bill we did not ask for. This came as a shock to me. We don’t manage our web sites that well.”

The battle generated national coverage, with the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal among the news organizations reporting on the “newspaper revenge bill” and Christie’s book deal. The national coverage largely mirrored the reporting in New Jersey, where the primary substantive issues addressed were the newspaper closures and loss of newspaper-industry jobs the bill would cause, and questionable assumptions about the taxpayer money that would be saved by moving public notices to government websites.

Christie claimed the bill would save the state $80 million, but his administration never provided a source for its estimate. NJPA estimated that government expenditures on public notice in the state were closer to $20 million, with $8 million paid by the government and the remainder funded by businesses and individuals. In one of the more unusual details of the battle, Christie’s repeated and mistaken claim that homeowners tied up in foreclosure are responsible for paying the cost of foreclosure notices was never challenged in any of the many press reports about the bill.

According to NJPA, the bill would have caused the loss of 200 to 300 newspaper industry jobs in the state. This figure was cited in almost every news report on the legislation. By mid-day on Monday, Christie’s communications team was lashing out at the papers, issuing a release titled “Media Billionaires Continue To Demand NJ Taxpayer Subsidy.” The release focused primarily on Gannett and Advance Publications, the two biggest newspaper publishers in the state, accusing the companies of profiting from “corporate welfare from a mandate that municipalities, school districts and counties publish legal notices in print newspapers, instead of giving them the option to post online.” (Emphasis in the original)

In fact, the bill would have given municipalities the option of purchasing space in newspapers in order to provide public notice. However, as NJPA and others opposed to the bill noted, this provision would have given government officials a club to punish local newspapers for negative coverage.

When the prospects for newspapers were darkest, NJPA offered lawmakers a compromise, agreeing to cut government rates for taxpayer-funded public notice ads by 50 percent while instituting a series of gradual increases in the fees charged for notices subsidized by businesses and other private parties. Public notes rates in New Jersey are set by statute and haven’t been raised since 1983.

“We’re pleased that many legislators and citizens heard our message and ultimately decided not to rush such an important government transparency issue,” said NJPA Executive Director George White (pictured above). “We look forward to returning after the holidays and continuing the conversation about how to effectively modernize the public notification process for the digital age.”

“Legislators in New Jersey recognized with some prodding that this issue is more complex than they thought and the public is very concerned about reducing government transparency,” said Brad Thompson, CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co. and president of PNRC. “We are gratified New Jersey decided not to become the first state in the country to vastly reduce their citizens’ right to know by eliminating public notice in local newspapers.”

    Press Coverage:

Jersey Publishers ‘Not Slowing Down’ in Opposition to Christie Newspaper ‘Revenge Bill’, Politico
The Ramifications of Christie’s Failed ‘Newspaper Revenge’ and Book Deal Bills, The Observer
The Newspaper Issue isn’t Over Yet, NJ Advance Media
Lawmakers’ Revolt Sinks Christie Book Deal, Newspaper Bill, The Record/NorthJersey.com
A Message From Governor Chris Christie On Posting Legal Notices Online, Gov. Chris Christie
Christie & Dem Bosses Get Public Spanking They Deserve, Tom Moran, Star-Ledger
Sorry, Christie, Newspapers are Alive and Kicking, Alfred Doblin, The Record

Government Website Notice Inadequate, Admits Environmental Agency

heidi2_529340_7The director of the same Michigan environmental agency under fire for dismissing concerns about the contamination of Flint’s water supply admitted her department failed to provide sufficient notice of another recent water proposal in the state, according to MLive Media Group.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) director Heidi Grether (pictured on the left) told an air and waste management law conference last week that 42 days on MDEQ’s website “probably” wasn’t sufficient to properly notify the public about a request by Nestle Waters North America to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps in Osceola County. Grether was named director of MDEQ in August after her predecessor was forced to resign in the wake of the Flint crisis.

“Was this advertised and noticed in a way it should have been? Probably not, it appears to me,” Grether said.

Nestle’s request first came to wide public attention on Oct. 31, when Garret Ellison of The Grand Rapids Press reported on the multinational corporation’s plan to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps from a particular well by 167 percent. MDEQ received more than 3,000 emails after the news organization published the story, which prompted the agency to extend the public comment period by several months. MDEQ also now plans to schedule a public hearing on Nestle’s request, which would support a $36 million expansion of its Ice Mountain bottling plant in the state.

MDEQ has already issued a draft approval for the request.

“The issue is the privatization of a critical resource,” Jeff Ostahowski told MLive. The vice president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) objects to water bring diverted from watersheds that feed the Great Lakes.

An attorney who represented MCWC in a previous battle with Nestle over groundwater pumping told MLive the right of Michigan citizens to register their opinion on government decisions about water has been “diminished to the point of absurdity.”

“Water is public, subject to high ethical and legal duties of protection for Great Lakes, lakes and streams, wetlands, groundwater, fishing, recreation, farming and businesses here,” said Jim Olson, co-founder of the Traverse City-based freshwater advocacy nonprofit FLOW (For Love of Water). “The MDEQ’s handling of the Nestle application is as lax as the handling of the Flint water crisis. Nothing has changed.”

MDEQ’s latest crisis comes on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to eliminate mandatory newspaper notice for Clean Air Act permits issued by it and EPA-affiliated agencies like MDEQ. EPA eliminated newspaper notice (PDF) for actions taken under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2000.

Texas Legislative Committee Recommends Maintaining Newspaper Notice

texas-mapSupport for public notice in newspapers received another boost on Nov. 1, when a joint legislative committee issued a report (PDF) recommending that Texas continue to rely on newspapers to inform the public about official actions in the state. The Joint Interim Committee on Advertising Public Notices suggested the legislature “maintain the current print requirement” and called newspapers “a third party who both creates a lasting and reliable record of the notice and acts as a gatekeeper to ensure that governments post their notices correctly.”

Texas was the third state this year in which a legislative committee created to study public notice advertising ultimately recommended it remain in newspapers. Legislative committees in Wisconsin and Kentucky both issued their reports in support of newspaper notice in October.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the appointment of the joint committee in April, asking it to “ensure efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in the way public notices are posted.” At its only hearing, held on Aug. 18, “ none of the lawmakers (appointed to serve on the committee) voiced support for loosening notice requirements,” according to a report in the El Paso Times. Several newspaper industry representatives testified at the hearing, including El Paso Times Editor Robert Moore; Gainesville Daily Register Publisher Lisa Chappell; Beeville Bee-Picayune Co-Publisher Chip Latcham; and Texas Press Association (TPA) Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett.

Although the committee recommended that legislators continue to study the issue, it clearly indicated that government agencies should never be entrusted with the responsibility of providing public notice about their own activities. “(T)here may come a time when the print requirement no longer serves the needs of the people,” the report noted. “In such a circumstance, however, the necessity of placing the notice with a local, third-party media organization likely remains.”

The committee also cited newspapers’ online presence and their willingness to post public notice advertising on their own websites as additional reasons to retain the current statutory requirements.

The committee called on the legislature to distinguish the costs of public notice from other types of advertising, and to create a supplemental notification system through the state comptroller’s office. As TPA’s Baggett noted this week at a Newspaper Association Manager’s meeting in Arlington, Va., the first recommendation was necessary because government agencies in Texas lump all advertising costs together and have no way of knowing how much money they spend on public notice. Baggett also said the committee stipulated that the website and email notification system it is recommending for the comptroller’s office does not alone satisfy the public notice requirement.

EPA Eliminates Mandatory Newspaper Notice for Clean Air Act Permits

epa_logo-jpgThe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it was eliminating the mandatory requirement to provide newspaper notice of permitting and implementation actions under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The rule, which will take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, The rule requires notification on EPA’s new “National Public Notices Website” and allows other agencies that implement EPA-approved CAA programs to publish notices on their websites as well.

The rule doesn’t prevent permitting authorities from supplementing notice on their own websites with newspaper notice. In addition, it doesn’t override state laws requiring state and local environmental agencies to use newspapers to notify the public about EPA-approved permitting actions under the CAA. In those states, new laws would have to be passed to eliminate the newspaper-notice requirement.

EPA responded at length to comments PNRC submitted earlier this year (PDF) in response to the agency’s original proposal. (See pp. 28-38 of this “Internet version” of the rule (PDF) obtained by PNRC.) EPA appears to have been most sensitive to PNRC’s argument that eliminating newspaper notice would disadvantage rural, elderly and low-income Americans without Internet access. But the agency swept aside those concerns by citing a 2010 study that showed 44 percent of citizens “living below the poverty line” use library computers.

“We do not dispute that some individuals may continue to rely on newspapers rather than the Internet to obtain information and that there may be greater concentrations of such persons in some communities,” the agency said. “However … this does not take away the added benefits cited by other commenters of reaching additional individuals through the Internet and providing notice continuously during the public comment period.”

EPA disagreed with PNRC’s contention that public notices should be published by independent third parties, not the government agencies whose actions are subject to notification. But rather than address this “fox guarding the henhouse” argument, EPA noted instead that “(PNRC) has not demonstrated that newspapers generally exercise independent editorial control over the content of legal notices or … otherwise seek to check the veracity of what the newspaper company is paid to print in these sections of its publication.”

EPA was persuaded by PNRC’s arguments that public notices published in newspapers can provide verification that is absent on the web, and that EPA.gov doesn’t presently include hyperlinks referring users to the agency’s public notices. In response to those concerns, EPA adopted recommendations that weren’t included in its original proposal, encouraging permitting authorities to “certify” e-notice dates and “include hyperlinks” to public notices on their websites.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new rule was EPA’s announcement that since mid-2015 it has been developing a “National Public Notices Website” to publish notices for all EPA actions subject to notice requirements. The agency expects the website to be completed and implemented by the end of the year, and it welcomed other permitting authorities to review the site for best practices. This announcement tells us, of course, that EPA began developing the site about six months before it issued its proposal to eliminate newspaper notice, but decided not to mention it until now.

The new rule follows the Obama Administration’s 2011 Executive Order requiring federal agencies to “end unnecessary printing” by “making information available online for the public.”

Government Website Leaves Residents with Little Notice about Bee-Killing Zika Spray

dead_beeMany residents in Dorchester County, South Carolina were upset by the lack of notice from government officials about a recent aerial insecticide spray that killed millions of honeybees, according to USA Today. The county sprayed naled, which is harmful to bees and other insects, in order to kill mosquitos that are known to carry Zika.

A local TV news station reported that many people said they had been notified by phone only 10 hours before the spray. County officials responded by noting that they had also posted a notice on the county website two days earlier.