Keep public notices public

Published 10:03 am Monday, February 21, 2022

Click here to see proposed HB524

If one Kentucky legislator has his way, many Kentuckians could lose access to public information related to the business of their local governing bodies.

Last Thursday, Feb. 17, State Rep. Ryan Dotson, R-Winchester, filed what was to become House Bill 524, seeking to eliminate the requirement of public notices to be published in newspapers.

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Currently, any new ordinance passed by a city council or fiscal court must be published in that community’s newspaper of record. In the event there are two or more newspapers published in that community, the newspaper with the largest paid circulation is considered the newspaper of record.

This is not new legislation. Previously proposed versions have been filed that would have limited publishing requirements for cities or counties with populations of 90,000 residents. A later version lowered that number to 80,000. The bill proposed by Dotson now includes all Kentucky communities regardless of their size.

In addition to ordinances, items such as zoning changes, tax increases, and other important decisions made by a governing body that require the public to be informed before the body takes action are considered public notices. The notices are published after the governing body has the first reading of the ordinance, allowing the public an opportunity to be aware and potentially voice any concerns prior to the second and final reading that would pass the ordinance.

If HB 524 becomes law, that information would no longer be required to be published in print. Instead, governing bodies could simply publish a small one-time ad in the newspaper telling citizens that information about a certain action is available on a website operated by the government body or even a contracted third party. From there, it would be the readers’ responsibility to visit the website and find the information themselves.

This bill comes with multiple issues that prove it is not in the best interest of the public.

The government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure adequate notification to the public of its actions. That responsibility cannot be abandoned in favor of cost savings that may prove to be elusive in light of a decrease in effective public notice. Furthermore, placing the responsibility of notifying the public in the hands of government officials carries with it a potential for abuse. For example, it may create the temptation to change or manipulate the timing of public notices.

Another problem is the limited availability of internet access to many Kentuckians. Even in 2022 there are homes in all parts of the state that don’t have reliable internet access, and HB 524 would limit their access to important information.

Publishing public notices in newspapers is much more reliable than the internet. Newspapers serve as an authentic record of publication and provide sworn affidavits that the information was published, along with the physical proof of the actual issue of the paper. The stability of local newspapers as a medium for public notices is unquestionable. The internet, on the other hand, remains highly vulnerable and unstable. Power surges, computer problems and downed servers can prevent access at any given time.

This proposed legislation would remove information from many citizens, but it would also place an additional burden on communities to have someone post the information to their sites. Larger communities may have a person on staff to handle tasks related to updating their websites, but for smaller communities it provides more of a problem than a solution. And remember, this must be done in a timely manner. It’s not uncommon to visit the websites of agencies in some small communities only to find outdated information. In one community where I lived a few years ago, I discovered that a local website featured names of two people no longer serving on a local board, and another who was listed as a member was deceased. Are these the sources you want to depend upon for important information about local government activity?

Citizens of any community should be able to easily find information about what’s happening with their local government, and newspapers are the best way to get that information to them.

Please contact your state legislators in Frankfort by calling (800) 372-7181 and letting them know where you stand on this issue.

Jeff Moreland is regional editor of Bluegrass Newsmedia and a former member of the Kentucky Press Association’s board of directors.