For decades, local governments in Florida have been required to make a straightforward effort to inform residents about upcoming issues directly affecting the quality of life in their community. They have to publish legal notices in the local newspaper. Now there is a renewed effort in the Florida Legislature to abolish that requirement, which would erode open government and make it harder for Floridians to hold their leaders accountable.
With less than 48 hours' notice, the House Judiciary Committee today will consider legislation that would end the requirement that governments publish legal notices in newspapers. Instead, starting in 2020 those notices would be required to be published on government websites. That is simply not good enough, and lawmakers should reject HB 1235 and stand up for government in the sunshine.
The fate of legal notices is not a new issue. Legislation has been filed in previous years to move the notices away from newspapers, but those efforts have not gotten far. This appears to be a more determined effort. The House bill is suddenly moving halfway through the legislative session and its main sponsor, Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine, is among the chamber's key committee chairmen. So there is reason to be concerned —and plenty of reasons to keep legal notices in newspapers.
Legal notices detail the meat and potatoes of government. They alert citizens about proposed budgets and tax rates for cities, counties, school districts and special taxing districts such as fire districts and water management districts. They also cover topics such as infrastructure plans, changes in land use and other new ordinances. This is how residents may learn their property tax rates are about to go up, or that vacant land next to their neighborhood might become an industrial site.
Florida newspapers reach far more readers than most any government website. A survey by Mason Dixon Polling & Research in 2017 found 83 percent of Floridians say state and local governments should be required to publish public notices in newspapers. Virtually the same portion also said they would not visit government websites to read public notices.
This is a solution in search of a problem. The House bill would require governments to publish an annual notice in a newspaper that says any resident also could receive legal notices by first class mail or by email. Florida's newspapers already operate a separate public notice website, www.floridapublicnotices.com, that aggregates public notices from around the state. Exactly how many residents are going to sign up to receive every legal notice by regular mail or email from their county, city, school district and special taxing districts?
The motives behind this legislation are suspect. Florida's tradition of government-in-the-sunshine, enshrined in the state constitution and state law, is under attack on multiple fronts in Tallahassee. Some lawmakers also may be eager to take more revenue away from newspapers, which remain the primary institutions that hold government and elected officials accountable. The Tampa Bay Times, like other newspapers, makes money from legal notices. But the fees for legal notices are set by statute, and the cost is far outweighed by the benefits of informing citizens so they can take action and make their voices heard.
Four Tampa Bay legislators are members of the House Judiciary Committee: Republicans James Grant of Tampa and Mike Beltran of Lithia, and Democrats Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg and Fentrice Driskell of Tampa. They should vote against this bill today and persuade their colleagues to stand up for open government.