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Wednesday, May 21,2014

Keep public notices

by Mickey Hirten
There was a legislative hearing last week to change how public bodies tell us about proposed tax increases, zoning changes in our neighborhoods, new water rates and hundreds of other government actions that fall under the category of public notices.

Itīs important. Stay with me on this. Think of a public notice as insurance; you donīt need it until you need it. That is until the town approves an apartment complex on your street of single homes or wants to widen a road by cutting down hundredyear-old trees. These are the call-to-action items.

The forum for these public notifications generally is newspapers. Some legislators want to move public notices to government websites. They talk about the decline in print and the cost of publishing notices. Some even believe that a move away from newspapers will encourage more readership of these notices, that people will regularly search out public notices on the Vevay or Wheatfield Township websites. Seriously!

There may be merit in these arguments, but the bill (H.B. 5560) sponsored by Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Twp., is an oddly drafted document lacking any details of the public notifications it wants to change. The bill divides public notices into three tiers — A, B and C — which are defined in 117 other bills related to public notices requirements. As a result, the hub bill, as itīs called, doesnīt convey the real thrust of the proposal, which usurps the traditional role of private businesses — that is, newspapers— and imposes new requirements on state and local governments, commissions, authorities and districts.

Price, who chairs the House Committee on Local Government, said that she started the public notice campaign with all 250 Michigan notification bills, some so antiquated that they literally required notices be posted in a community. These were consolidated into 117 bills, all of which will need approval in the House and Senate and signatures by Gov. Rick Snyder. Price explained that the tiers are graded. A-level notices cover assessments, taxes and elected officials, things that are really important to people and would be published in print for the longest. C-level requirements that are largely procedural and would go more quickly to government run websites.

Full disclosure: Public notice advertising is an important source of revenue for City Pulse and other newspapers in Michigan. Secondly, I am president of the Michigan Press Association, which is lobbying against H.B. 5560. Clearly, Iīm not impartial.

For some balance, I spoke with Rep. Andy Schor, D- Lansing, a co-sponsor of Priceīs bill, and Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing (and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House). Heīs against it, believing that it hurts the elderly and the poor.

“With older folks, a lot of them donīt have Internet access, and I donīt think the solution is to go to the public library,” Schertzing said. “With struggling homeowners, a lot of people canīt even keep the same cell phone number. I donīt know how the web is the answer for notices for that group of people.”

His view on the elderly is confirmed by the Pew Internet Research Project, which found 41 percent of seniors do not use the Internet at all, 53 percent have no broadband access at home, and 23 percent do not use cell phones. As for the poor, in Lansing, 27 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

As county treasurer and chairman of the Ingham County Land Bank, Schertzingīs offices originate a lot of public notices. He said the response from newspapers, TV and letters is much stronger than for emails and social media.

The Price bill phases out print public notices over a 10-year period, an approach that encouraged Schor to support the measure. “You have local government getting killed in terms of funding and you have costs like newspaper notification that are high costs. On the other side, (newspapers) use the revenue to fund their work and to cut it off really isnīt a good idea,” he said.

Schor, who represents the city of Lansing and Lansing Township, said he didnīt know how much either community spends on public notices or how much online traffic they log. But he believes the march to digital is inexorable.

Newspapers are right to oppose these changes and not just because it threatens revenues. They have moved into the digital age — by combining print and online audiences, they often reach 80 percent of their communities. The chances of people reading public notices is far greater on a news site than a government site.

There some pure digital issues: The rapid move to smart phones and away from desktops will make reading public notices, which are dense and legalistic, painfully difficult. And there are studies that suggest lower reading comprehension for digital displays compared with print.

Certainly, publishing public notices is an expense. But so is government. Schertzing has it right when he says that “democracy is not about efficiency. It requires public participation. To focus on public notices as a cost measure is not good.”

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