Keep public notices in media to keep government transparent
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.