Keep pub­lic no­tices in me­dia to keep govern­ment trans­par­ent

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - By Do­minic M. Cal­abro and Pat Neal

As fel­low, red-blooded Amer­i­cans who cher­ish the free­doms this na­tion pro­vides, we at Florida Tax Watch hold dear the in­de­pen­dent and un­fil­tered man­ner of gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties plac­ing pub­lic no­tices in lo­cal news­pa­pers of record. Such no­tices fur­ther a cit­i­zen’s right to know about their elected of­fi­cial’s de­ci­sions af­fect­ing their daily lives — a be­drock prin­ci­ple of our con­sti­tu­tional demo­cratic repub­lic.

Pub­lic no­tice laws have been en­acted in all 50 states be­cause some in­for­ma­tion is so im­por­tant we can’t rely on pub­lic of­fi­cials to vol­un­tar­ily sur­ren­der it. These laws state pre­cisely when and where such in­for­ma­tion must be pub­lished and do not leave it to the govern­ment to do the pub­lish­ing. These no­tices cover a broad va­ri­ety of top­ics: tax-re­lated no­tices (delin­quent tax sales, mill­age rates, etc.), city/ county bud­gets, govern­ment in­fra­struc­ture plans, en­vi­ron­men­tal cleanups, es­tate sales, new or­di­nances, sher­iff ’s sales, seizures of drug money, etc.

As a non­par­ti­san govern­ment watch­dog and tax­payer re­search in­sti­tute that fo­cuses on pro­mot­ing govern­ment ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency, Florida Tax Watch sup­ports the use of pub­lic no­tices in lo­cal news­pa­pers of record by govern­ment en­ti­ties to no­tify all of its ci­ti­zens of meet­ings and votes.

Un­for­tu­nately, we have seen in past ses­sions pro­posed state leg­is­la­tion that would limit or end pub­lic no­tices in news­pa­pers and al­low them to be posted only on a web­site such as city or county web­site. If passed, these pro­pos­als would end or limit news­pa­pers hous­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing pub­lic no­tices, thus caus­ing Florid­i­ans to be less in­formed about cur­rent govern­ment is­sues.

Why is news­pa­per no­tice in par­tic­u­lar so im­por­tant? One rea­son is that pub­lic no­tice ads in news­pa­pers alert­ing ci­ti­zens of im­por­tant events in their com­mu­nity are “pushed” into mil­lions of house­holds.

These pub­lished pub­lic no­tices in­form not just the po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers who might oc­ca­sion­ally visit a govern­ment web­site or sign up for mailed alerts, or even those with a direct stake in the mat­ter, but the en­tire com­mu­nity. In con­trast, no one goes to a city or county web­site to find “the news,” and most do not pull up a govern­ment web site for any rea­son.

In­deed, a re­cent sci­en­tific poll by Mason Dixon shows that Florida ci­ti­zens over­whelm­ingly want wider ac­cess to the pub­lic no­tice in­for­ma­tion, as 83 per­cent of re­spon­dents polled want lo­cal gov­ern­ments to carry pub­lic no­tices in news­pa­pers, and 82 per­cent said they would not seek out in­for­ma­tion on govern­ment web­sites.

Also con­sider: no­tices only avail­able on govern­ment-run web­sites elim­i­nate the crit­i­cal neu­tral­ity and in­de­pen­dence of a news­pa­per or other third party. The temp­ta­tion would be too high for govern­ment web­sites to miss no­ti­fi­ca­tion dead­lines, leave out crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion or make changes elec­tron­i­cally to items with­out pub­lic knowl­edge. With the news­pa­pers pro­vid­ing third-party ver­i­fi­ca­tion, Florida tax­pay­ers are en­sured greater ac­cess to pub­lic no­tice in­for­ma­tion. When some­thing runs in the news­pa­per, it is per­ma­nently printed and dis­trib­uted for all to ref­er­ence and re-ex­am­ine any time.

And fi­nally, no­tices from Florida’s news­pa­pers are not only pub­lished on their own widely viewed web­sites but also ag­gre­gated at www.flori­da­pub­lic­no­tices.com, a free search­able com­pendium of pub­lic no­tices. The site can also push out emails to re­quest­ing users of no­tices as they are posted.

Here at Florida TaxWatch, we re­gard trans­parency as be­ing of para­mount im­por­tance when it comes to the state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments’ in­ter­ac­tions with their ci­ti­zens. No one is more com­mit­ted to mean­ing­ful govern­ment cost sav­ings, in­no­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity than Florida TaxWatch.

Florida is widely known for its open­govern­ment poli­cies and trans­parency. We ask the Florida Leg­is­la­ture to keep pub­lic no­tices in the sun­shine so they are vis­i­ble for all to see on web­sites and in news­pa­pers in ad­vance of govern­ment meet­ings and ac­tions.

The min­i­mal cost of lo­cal gov­ern­ments fund­ing pub­lic no­tices in un­fil­tered, neu­tral, third-party com­mu­ni­ca­tions ve­hi­cles is a small price to pay to pro­tect our coun­try’s free­doms that our men and women in uni­form fight to sup­port and de­fend.

Do­minic M. Cal­abro has been pres­i­dent and CEO of Florida TaxWatch for nearly four decades. For­mer state sen­a­tor Pat Neal is chair­man of Florida TaxWatch and pres­i­dent of Neal Com­mu­ni­ties.

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