Keep Public Notices in full view

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A bill approved by a Florida House committee on Feb. 3 will be sent to the floor later this month that would effectively end the practice of placing public notices in newspapers for local governments’ most important actions, such as meetings, new ordinances, rezoning, the establishment of new districts and property tax rate changes.

House Bill 35, which also applies to notices of storage unit sales and fictitious name registrations, dubs itself as a cost-saving measure for local governments. It gives them the option to publish legal notices online – on a local government’s website or a third-party website – if that costs less than newspaper publication. By moving to an online-only system, local governments would leave millions of people who do not have access to the internet in the dark when it comes to their local governments’ dealings.

It would also give government more control over that information.

Each week, 6.8 million Floridians read printed daily and weekly newspapers, according to the Florida Press Association, of which the USA TODAY Network is a member. So, arguments that House Bill 35 makes sense because “no one reads newspapers nowadays” are clearly wrong.

Public and legal notices are also posted at no additional charge on newspapers’ websites and a website maintained by the Association, floridapublicnotices.com. Newspapers must also provide email notification of new legal notices when they are printed in the newspaper and added to the website.

Can you think of the last time you visited our counties official URL? Do you even know it? A newspaper’s web audience is about 10 times larger than most cities and county websites, according to the Press Association. Unless people go looking for notices, they won’t see them. In the paper, they stumble upon them while reading the news. 

Of course, public notices do represent a source of revenue for newspapers across Florida, including Clay Today. Some reading this editorial might assume we’re trying to protect our bottom line. (That bottom line, by the way, ensures local jobs are maintained, not just in journalism but in marketing, circulation, page and graphic design, finance and other sectors).

While House Bill 35 would small weekly newspapers like Clay Today as well as larger newspapers like the Miami Herald financially… it would hurt you, too.  

This notion everyone is online is simply not true. We learned that lesson during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, when many Florida communities required seniors to go online to register for an appointment, causing confusion and frustration for those unable to navigate the web (luckily, the state has rolled out a new system). With more than 4 million Florida residents ages 65 and older, moving important public notices entirely online hurts them – 14% of Florida’s seniors do not have internet access, according to a 2019 Nielsen Scarborough report.

It also baffles us the Legislature would do away with existing private-industry infrastructure to allow government to take over the process with no supervision. If governments decide to re-create the functionality of the existing online system (a system that allows you to search all public notices in the state on the same website instead of hundreds of city and county ones), they will incur significant costs.

If governments decide to do it on the cheap by posting notices on an obscure webpage, the public will lose easy access to crucial information. That should be enough for lawmakers of any party in a state known for its government-in-the-sunshine laws to reject House Bill 35 filed by Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County. 

HB 35 would still require governments to post a notice, at least annually, in a newspaper or other publication to all residents and property owners offering them the alternative to receive legal notices by first-class mail or email after registering with the agency.

The cost of doing that might eat into whatever governments save by not running all notices in the paper, a Florida House staff analysis of HB 35 found.

“The cost associated with this requirement, and with subsequently providing the notices, may offset to an unknown amount the savings realized from online notice publication,” according to the analysis.

Florida lawmakers must answer: Does dismantling a private-industry infrastructure and replacing it with a government operation serve taxpayers when savings might not be as big as promised? How would the public know important notices or controversial actions are not hidden from view?

Let our local lawmakers know your opinion.

Contact Sam Garrison  sam.garrison@myfloridahouse.gov, Bobby Payne bobby.payne@myfloridahouse.gov and Jennifer Bradley Bradley.jennifer.web@flsenate.gov with your thoughts.

 

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