Local governments have been required for decades to make a modest effort to keep residents informed about issues affecting their communities, from the common to the consequential. They have to publish legal notices in the local newspaper. Yet the Florida Legislature is attempting to abolish that requirement, which would push government further into the shadows and make it harder for Floridians to learn about public policy issues, make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable.
A House bill, HB 7, that would end the requirement that governments publish legal notices in newspapers and allow them to be published on government websites is ready for a vote by the full House. That’s no surprise; the House passed the same bill last year and it died in the Senate. More distressing is that the Senate Judiciary Committee is suddenly taking up similar legislation, SB 1340, on Tuesday. What horse trades are going on between House and Senate leaders that suddenly has this terrible public policy moving?
Despite the overheated rhetoric from the sponsor of the House legislation, Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine, there are plenty of reasons to keep legal notices in newspapers. Those legal notices provide the public with information about the meat and potatoes of government. They alert citizens about proposed budgets and tax rates for cities, counties, school districts and special taxing districts. They cover issues such as infrastructure plans, changes in land use and other proposed ordinances. Residents may learn their property tax rates are about to increase, or that apartments or warehouses could sprout on nearby vacant land that was supposed to be set aside for single-family homes.
Fine inaccurately claims nobody reads print newspapers anymore. Newspapers in Florida and throughout the nation are under financial pressure as ownership consolidates and the digital transformation continues. But research shows more than 7.5 million people in Florida read a printed newspaper every week. How many citizens access government websites?
Second, there is strong support among Floridians to keep the requirement that state and local governments publish legal notices in newspapers. A 2019 poll by Mason Dixon Polling & Research show 83 percent of Floridians support keeping the requirement and 68 percent would be unlikely to seek out legal notices on a government website.
There is no legitimate argument for making this change. Florida newspapers already operate a separate legal notice website, www.floridapublicnotices.com, that aggregates legal notices from around the state. Individual newspapers also have public notices on their websites. But one study shows a million Floridians do not have internet access, and the digital divide is particularly stark in rural areas and poor neighborhoods. The House bill would require governments to publish an annual notice in a newspaper that says any resident could receive legal notices by first-class mail or by email. How many residents would take the time to sign up to receive every legal notice by regular mail or email from their county, city, school district and special taxing districts?
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Florida’s long tradition of government-in-the-sunshine, defined in the Florida Constitution and state law, is under attack on multiple fronts in Tallahassee. There is another effort to make secret the initial searches for college and university presidents. Other legislation would make secret the home addresses of the very lawmakers pushing to end the requirement for legal notices to be published in newspapers. To ensure basic accountability, independent sources should keep publishing legal notices of government actions rather than trusting every government agency to do it faithfully and accurately.
Some lawmakers may be eager to take more revenue away from newspapers, which remain the primary institutions that hold government and elected officials accountable. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, inaccurately calls the legal notice requirement "corporate welfare.'' The Tampa Bay Times, like other newspapers, makes money from legal notices. The lost revenue would be particularly painful for smaller newspapers that are often the sole independent source about what local government is up to in their communities. But the fees for legal notices are set by statute, and the benefits of informing citizens far outweigh the cost.
The House may be a lost cause. As it did last year, the Senate should stand up for open government and against this misguided effort to take government further out of the sunshine.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news