"No one reads public notices.”
“They’re just a subsidy for newspapers.”
“Newspapers are a dying breed.”
“It’s all about the money.”
For 25 years, with the advent of the internet and with Republicans controlling more and more legislatures nationwide, Republican lawmakers have been trying to eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers.
Their goal is becoming increasingly within reach.
One step toward that came last week when the Sarasota County Commission adopted an ordinance giving the Sarasota County administration permission to publish its public notices on the county website instead of publishing them in a newspaper and the newspaper’s website.
And last month, the Manatee County Commission did the same — in about 14 minutes.
In both cases, commissioners touted the same motivation: to save “six figures” of taxpayers’ money.
This scene is playing out all across Florida. In virtually every county, the county commissions and staffs are moving quickly toward eliminating public notice advertising in newspapers and shifting to publishing them on their county websites.
For many people, especially those who don’t give a squat about what their governments are doing to them or for them, this business about public notices and newspapers is meaningless. It’s a headline on their phones they immediately swoosh off their phone screens.
But for those who do care what the county or city commissions are doing with your tax dollars and to your neighborhoods, perhaps you might want to give this subject some thought.
It's more than just money
It’s not all about the money. There is more to it than that — more nuance about which lawmakers and commissioners appear to have little concern.
It’s about a safeguard that helps keep the government honest. It’s a safeguard that helps citizens monitor and watchdog their government. It’s about creating guardrails that force governments to be almost excessive in their openness and transparency.
For gosh sakes, look at Washington and the hullabaloos over the handling of classified documents. What more convincing does the citizenry need to be convinced that honest transparency is essential to the success of democracy?
Surely you agree: Public notice is essential to the successful functioning of a democracy.
The question is: What is the most effective way to achieve that? What are the most effective ways to achieve that?
From what we’ve heard, most lawmakers are of the same mind: It’s all about saving money.
Manatee Commissioner George Kruse, Dec. 15: Publishing public notices on MyManatee.org “is a better system overall. It’s also saving us countless hours. … It’s also saving us six figures of cost to the taxpayers.”
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert, Jan. 18: “It basically comes down to our budget. We’re going into a recession. We have to pull in our horns in every way that we can.”
Ah, there is great irony here with the Republicans chomping to get their notices out of newspapers. To borrow a phrase: They speak with forked tongues.
For 25 years, in election campaign after election campaign, we’ve heard conservative Republican candidates and officeholders blather on about their unwavering commitment to government transparency, open government, smaller government, less regulation, fiscal restraint and free enterprise.
And yet, here they are adopting legislation that shifts public notices from wide dissemination via local newspapers and the newspapers’ websites and the statewide aggregation site, FloridaPublicNotices.com to, arguably, obscure government-controlled websites.
Those newspaper websites, by the way, reach 51 million unique users a month. No one reads newspapers anymore? Print is declining for dailies (not weeklies), but newspapers’ website readership is growing. In fact, it’s typically 10 times greater than local government website readership.
And yet, here are the free-market Republicans crafting legislation to take public notice advertising out of the private sector and increase the size, scope, control and cost of government.
This issue isn’t just about the money.
It is also about this: Republican legislators and county and city commissioners all across Florida hate their communities’ daily newspaper. They cannot stand how the local dailies constantly criticize them. And they hate even more that county and city governments, until now, were forced by statute to pay to advertise public notices in the daily newspapers.
Decades ago, the daily newspaper industry successfully persuaded lawmakers (mostly Democrats) to create public notice laws that gave the dailies a monopoly on public notices — no competition.
And for Rep. Randy Fine, R-Melbourne, the champion of newspaper haters, that sweet deal for dailies convinced him public notice advertising was indeed a subsidy for newspapers. It didn’t matter that newspapers were performing a service, just as other county vendors do. But for Fine, the notices merely have been providing taxpayer money to keep newspapers alive.
That’s what Commissioner Detert meant when she said last week “it’s all about the money” — revenue that newspapers are trying to protect.
For the hedge funds and big, New York-based companies that own newspaper chains that is likely so. But for those of us Pollyannas who believe the Fourth Estate is essential to democracy, it’s not about the money. We believe news media have an obligation to protect taxpayers from tyranny and that when independent, private enterprise publishes public notices, it helps ensure government transparency and honesty.
When newspaper representatives made their case before the Sarasota County Commission last Wednesday, commissioners fixated on what they repeatedly called the “dying breed” of print newspapers. They totally ignored newspapers’ online audiences and the effectiveness of newspaper companies’ total reach — in print, on their websites and on FloridaPublicNotices.com.
Consider the contrast:
When a public notice advertisement appears in a print newspaper, the newspaper by law must upload the public notice to its website (free to the public) and to FloridaPublicNotices.com (also free). FloridaPublicNotices.com in turn houses every public notice published in newspapers throughout the state. Altogether, the public has three opportunities to see the notice. Print reaches Florida’s elder demographics (21% of the population); and online notices are free for all.
In contrast, when a public notice is published on, say, MyManatee.org, or any government website for that matter, while that notice can be viewed for free, it will be seen only on that website. Clearly, less visible.
At this point, there is little likelihood of lawmakers turning back. When Manatee commissioners voted in favor of publishing notices on the county website, Chair Kevin van Ostenbridge sounded giddy about the savings for taxpayers — say, $100,000 to $200,000 a year (albeit not proven yet). It’s the money.
But Manatee and Sarasota commissioners also said they are willing to compromise or change if this new approach doesn’t work. Or to put it another way: If this new approach is not effective.
Of course, that makes sense. But in their haste and giddiness to pull out of newspapers and rush to expanding government, commissioners in Sarasota and Manatee missed an approach that makes sense: Put the job out to the private sector for bid. Give the private sector the opportunity to compete — to show whether it can deliver the most effective public notices at the best price and best service.
Isn’t that what real Republicans would do?
You be the commissioner: How would you vote?
It always comes across as self-serving when newspaper executives argue to keep public notices in the newspapers.
In fact, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out the irony of things when, with a smile, she started her remarks by saying:
“All the stuff about public and not one person from the public showed up to defend you all. No one.”
Yeah, it always looks like newspaper people are the only ones who care about public notice.
But you could argue with Commissioner Detert that those newspaper people represent the public.
That is what the Fourth Estate does and is supposed to do. We were at the hearing on behalf of the public.
Nonetheless, if you have an interest in how government works and government transparency, you may find it of value to watch last week’s public hearing. It is illustrative of the conversations occurring throughout the state on this subject.
There was no specific evidence comparing the public’s use of county government websites versus newspaper websites. Commissioners in Sarasota and Manatee intuitively made the conclusion that publishing public notices on their websites will be less expensive and more efficient.
Manatee Commissioner George Kruse asked citizens before the vote on the issue: “How many people have a copy of the newspaper in their hands? (None) … How many people in this room right now literally have the internet in their pocket?
“You can get the internet anywhere,” he said. His point made.
Or, as Sarasota County Commission Chair Ron Cutsinger said: “I’m a fiscal conservative. It just seems to me if we can do it efficiently and if we can save dollars, I’m all for it.”
It didn’t and doesn’t matter what arguments are presented. Nothing will convince commissioners otherwise.
Even so, you be the judge. Imagine you were a county commissioner presented with this subject and imagine being in their shoes at the Sarasota County Commission hearing last week. How would you have voted?
Send your thoughts on the hearing and public notice advertising to [email protected].