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.
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.
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.
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.
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.