Gibson County residents first saw in the Nov. 22, 2016 editions of the Milan Mirror-Exchange that a local nursing home was in serious trouble with federal authorities for alleged maltreatment of patients.
It was in a legally-required public notice that informed friends and family of patients’ days before Thanksgiving that Medicare and Medicaid payments would end soon. It appeared in print, on the paper’s online edition and a statewide website.
The notice was an act by government to prevent public harm. It was an official news tip that led the Mirror to report: “Feds come down hard on Milan Health Care.”
The notice was the type of accountability that harkens back to the first Congress in 1789 which ordered that reports of all of its official acts be placed in three independent newspapers. It reflected the public distrust of the new government.
The safety notice in Milan was in stark contrast to earlier actions across the state in Wartburg.
Voters learned in the Morgan County News that county commissioners ignored a state law when they elected a new member. The law requires “public notice to be given in a newspaper of general circulation in the county at least seven (7) days prior” to a meeting to fill a vacancy because before any action registered voters are entitled to “an opportunity to submit names to the county legislative body for consideration.”
These examples are germane to recurring attempts to change how the public gets notice of official actions or plans. Proposals include moving notices from newspapers to government websites or giving local politicians discretion. Morgan County’s discretion not to give notice of its meeting shows why moving notices could be a bad idea.
Proponents cite reports of dwindling print readership and generalized assertions that the public now gets all of its information from on the internet. Some claim it’s a good way to save money, but there often are other agendas.
“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,” the Public Notice Resource Center in Washington reported. It was a reference to Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign against newspapers in the New Jersey legislature. The one-time presidential candidate blames news coverage of the “bridgegate” scandal for his 18% approval rating.
Tennessee has seen examples of those types of “revenge” attacks from critics who conveniently ignore the virtues of publishing notices in newspapers.
Noting that “…the purpose of publication…is to ensure the widest possible dissemination and publicity,” a bill last year said government entities “may elect” to publish notices on a publicly available web site in lieu of other publication methods.”
A bill expected this year seeks to change the law on soliciting competitive bids and allow use “an alternative method of announcement that generates the widest circulation.”
There is never proof that government websites could do that.
The “widest circulation” and dwindling readership issues were addressed three years ago when newspapers were required to post all printed notices on the paper’s local website and on a statewide aggregate website: tnpublicnotice.com.
To make notices more visible, newspapers provide a link to the notices from the front page of their website. Notices must be available to the public without charge.
That law provided more and better access than ever at no additional charge.
Readership studies show that adults who migrate from the printed newspaper usually go no further than the newspaper’s website. The national News Media Alliance reports surveys showing that two out of three U.S. adults read a newspaper in print or online during the week. Research in Tennessee showed comparable numbers.
The public would miss valuable protections with notices on government websites. Virtues in the system now include:
Notices are delivered by an independent and historically reliable source where the public expects to find them. They usually appear in the same place in the printed version of the local newspaper. Whereas they are highly visible on newspaper websites, they could get buried in an array of government websites.
A newspaper cannot be hacked which makes the notice secure and thus more reliable. The Anderson County website was hacked in 2016 and five months later officials did not know what happened.
A printed record of a public notice is an important document in any governmental or legal proceedings which is why notice is easily verifiable in the hands of a newspaper.
It is a service provided by good corporate citizens and local employers with more than a casual interest in keeping the public informed about government and topics of broader, general interest.
When governments create new programs they typically require some measure of independent public disclosure for oversight and accountability.
As for saving taxpayer money, the cost of publishing notices all year is seldom more than a fraction of 1 percent of an entity’s annual budget.
Creating an “option” or putting notices exclusively on government websites hands politicians a club to use against critical news coverage.
Frank Gibson is TPA’s public policy director and founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @615-202-2685.