If you’re not an insider in state politics, you’re probably unaware of bills being pushed in the state Legislature that could really keep you in the dark.
The Florida Legislature is attempting to abolish the requirement that governmental agencies publish legal notices in newspapers, which would push government further into the shadows and make it harder for Floridians to learn about public policy issues, make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable. This bill, HB 35 and SB 402, would move us in the wrong direction if passed.
Why? It flips “public notice” on its head by proposing that the government post notices on its own website rather than putting them out in plain public view. The word “public” means out in the open, right? Not stored somewhere within your own domain. Simply put, legal notices on government websites means very few Florida citizens will ever read them.
Public notices, along with public meetings and public records, have been part of our nation’s commitment to open government since the founding of the Republic. Changing this longstanding practice would greatly lessen government transparency and community awareness. Our founders placed public notices in newspapers to be noticed. Thus, PUBLIC NOTICE, is through an independent and trustworthy source outside the government itself.
In terms of technological advances, aside from local newspapers delivered to doorsteps, stacked on store racks and on street corners across the state, the Florida Press Association has invested in a comprehensive website that aggregates all public notices under one easy-to-search umbrella — floridapublicnotices.com. We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars building and updating this website to serve Florida’s state government as well as its towns, municipalities, businesses and taxpayers. To date, we have more than 30,000 registered users and more than 70,000 monthly page views in addition to the notices in local newspapers and their independent websites. And it’s free to the public.
There is no legitimate argument for making this change and sending government actions further into a black hole and out of the light. While those proposing it claim it will save money, if these bills are passed, city and county governments will be required to re-create the same infrastructure already in place to make notices easily searchable, mobile-friendly and to provide email notification upon request of specific notices (which newspaper do today). That re-creation will not be cheap. Nothing the government does ever is. And it’s your money they’re spending. So, the promised savings may not be there. Nor will the audience, without a major investment in marketing to re-direct our citizens to what would be hundreds of government websites.
Newspapers in Florida alone currently reach 6.8 million readers in any given week. Our websites typically reach more audience than city or county websites. In total, our websites draw a minimum of 58 million unique online users in any given month.
While this bill claims to save cities and county governments money, the unintended consequence is that public notices will be less public, with lower readership and legally important third-party verification. Notices in newspapers — in print and online — provides a verifiable public record through sworn required affidavits of publication.
In closing, 250 years ago our founders placed these public notices in independent public forums where we the people were most likely to see them and stay engaged. Let’s keep their intent for government to be as transparent as possible and the citizens aware and engaged. Use your voice now. Call your local legislators today. Tell them not to take public notices out of the public eye.