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 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.
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.
Two recent national studies clearly indicate that many people read public notices in their local newspapers. The studies also show that newspapers remain a far more effective medium for public notice than government websites.
Susquehanna Polling and Research’s survey of 1,000 U.S. households, commissioned by the National Newspaper Association (NNA), asked two questions of direct interest to policymakers focused on public notice issues. The first question asked respondents to indicate on a scale of one to seven how often they read public notices in their community newspaper, where one equals “never” and seven means “very often”. The mean score of their response was 3.93, with a full 21 percent saying they read notices in the paper “very often” and 81 percent indicating implicitly they read newspaper notices at least some of the time.
In 2014, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law passed by the Indiana legislature that eliminated newspaper notice of local government budgets. Before the law was enacted, all local government units in Indiana — from cities and counties to libraries and conservation districts — were required to publish their annual budget proposals and estimated tax rates in a local newspaper.
Now they are only required to post them on the website of the state’s Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which was one of the main proponents of the new law.
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.
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.
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.
It 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 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.