by Mitchell Kirk
A state senate bill that would allow public administrations and their underlying entities to publish public notices online rather than in newspapers has been tabled after meeting stiff opposition.
Under Indiana Code, local governments and the boards, commissions and other entities in them are required to publish notices of public meetings, elections, bond sales and other events in newspapers. The administrations are responsible for taking on the publication costs to do so.
Senate Bill 458 would allow these entities to forgo publishing in newspapers in lieu of publishing on their own websites or an official county government website. The bill would also require the publication of a weekly advertisement in newspapers providing the Internet address of the notice website.
State Sen. Jim Banks, who authored the bill, said he felt it would ultimately improve the way citizens are informed about public meetings.
“My motivation behind introducing the bill is to create more access to public records,” Banks said. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week access to public records, in my opinion, creates more transparency and access than exists currently.”
Banks said the rapid decline in newspaper readership also led him to pursue the legislation.
According to an October 2012 Pew Research Center study, 23 percent of Americans read print newspapers on a daily basis.
“We’ve looked at the changing landscape and have recognized people can use information differently rather than 100 years ago when the law was written,” Banks said, referring to the law requiring public notices to be published in newspapers. “This legislation would create more opportunities for people looking for public records to find them.”
One of the opponents who testified against the bill at its hearing was Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
“Citizens out there don’t really know about public notices being posted, so they discover them when they read the newspaper,” Key said, naming the multitude of commissions, boards and other administrations that would be posting individual notices online if the bill were to be voted through. “That’s not something that’s intuitive or anything anybody is expected to know.”
Key said placing meeting notices right into the constituents’ hands via a newspaper is more efficient than having them stumble across notices online or forcing them to actively seek out the notices.
“The most effective way to do that is to still put it in newspapers,” Key said. “That’s the place everyone expects to see news in the community and what the government is doing.”
In light of the concerns brought up by Key and others, State Sen. Randy Head, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee, did not call for a vote on the bill.
“The points raised by opponents of the bill gave me cause for concern and I think other members of the committee,” said Head, whose District 18 includes Cass County.
According to the city of Logansport’s budget for 2012, $10,000 was appropriated for public notices. If Banks’ bill were to be signed into law, public administrations would no longer have to pay to publish notices in newspapers.
“Banks is coming from a perspective of saving taxpayer money, which I appreciate and was why I gave it a hearing,” Head said. “However, there are other issues that need factoring. We can’t just go with the least expensive option; we need to make sure it gets information out to the public in the most efficient way possible.”
Key said these taxes were a small price to pay when factoring in the end result, however.
“It’s a worthwhile expense for taxpayers to spend this money in order to be able to find out how millions are being spent,” Key said.
Taking the $10,000 the city appropriated for public notices and dividing it by 20,000, the approximate population of Logansport, each citizen paid around $0.50 to have public notices included in a newspaper last year.
Head said whether or not the bill will return for a vote is at the Senate’s discretion.
“It really depends on if there’s a consensus reached between members in the caucus and if they think they can resolve those concerns,” Head said.
Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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