March 24: OP/ED

By DONNIS BAGGETT

Texas Press Association

Editorial cartoonist Ben Sargent once penned a masterful sketch of a newspaperman — a skinny, bug-eyed fellow in a baggy suit with a press card in the band of his porkpie hat.

The unnamed journalist was depicted in the simple act of entering a dark room at city hall and switching on a light. The cartoon had no caption. It didn’t need one. In your mind’s eye you could see cockroaches scurrying for cover.

Sargent’s message to Austin American-Statesman readers was clear and timeless: Light is the best disinfectant, and nothing shines light on the activities of government like a newspaper. That’s especially true in this era of real-time news coverage, instantaneous online commentary and partisan electronic echo chambers. 

Governments today are larger, more pervasive and more powerful than any time in our history. Fortunately for those of us who believe in self-governance, newspapers are still around. And they’re the best source for information on how government spends your money and what government plans to do to you. That’s because newspapers still cover the behind-the-scenes goings-on at city hall and not just the horse-race aspect of political campaigns. It’s also because newspapers are still the home of public notices, and some of the most important journalism in your newspaper arrives in the form of public notices.

Public notices are mandatory announcements of what a governmental body plans to do or what it has already put into motion. They are not universally popular among government officials. Public notices are printed in newspapers — the civic journals of their communities —because they’re required under scores of laws passed over the past two centuries. The idea behind those public notice laws was to foster transparency to keep government open and accountable.

If you’re a parent and you need to know ahead of time that the school district is drawing up new school attendance zones, you should appreciate public notices. The law requires the district to print that plan in a newspaper. Without even knowing you should look, you can stumble across new information on where Little Johnny may be attending school next year while sipping your latte and reading the morning paper. You become aware of this important development in your family’s existence whether or not you follow the superintendent’s social media posts. If you don’t like what you see, you can take action to oppose it.

If you’re a taxpayer and you want to learn out about property tax rates planned for next year before they’re passed,  you can appreciate public notices. State law requires cities, counties and school districts to notify you of their intentions before tax rates are set in stone. How? In a public notice printed in the newspaper.

And if you’re a property owner like the folks of Fayette County, you’d appreciate knowing if an out-of-town company is seeking a permit to dump Austin sewage sludge in a field beside the Colorado River. A modest legally required public notice in the Fayette County Record brought that plan to light. It didn’t pass the smell test with citizens, and they raised a stink with state officials. The permit application was quickly withdrawn.

Public notices in newspapers get noticed. When they do, readers may decide to share a thought or two with the officials involved. Let’s face it: those officials’  jobs would be ever-so-much less stressful if they didn’t have to interact with upset voters who pay the taxes that fund their paychecks. Some officials are particularly galled that state law requires them to pay newspapers to publish these notices. They complain to legislators that it’s a waste of money — that the notices could simply be posted on the governmental entity’s website without paying newspapers to spread the news.

Their argument doesn’t mention the fact that public notice rates are among the lowest charged by newspapers. It also fails to note that creating, operating and maintaining a government-public notice site would also cost taxpayers money. And it conveniently ignores the immense watchdog value of a newspaper serving as an independent, verifiable and archived third-party source for these important notices. 

Today, newspapers are making their notices more visible than ever, and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer an extra dime. In addition to printing the notices for a fee, Texas publishers make public notice information available at no extra charge online. Citizens can even sign up at no charge to electronically receive notices by subject matter and by jurisdiction.

A few months ago, the state of Florida updated its public notice laws by requiring newspapers to provide this additional electronic service for public notices at no additional charge. But only eight weeks after the new law went into effect, the Florida legislature backtracked. It passed another law allowing governmental entities to post notices on their own government websites and bypass newspapers altogether. In doing so, the state of Florida legalized the concept of the fox guarding the henhouse.

If you think that sort of thing can’t happen in Texas, think again. Like Texas, Florida is a conservative state with voters who want to hold government accountable. That’s a good thing. But some overeager legislators committed to cutting taxes, supporting local control and promising to “work with” local officials can be misled by a local official’s suggestion to eliminate newspaper notices and put the money into pothole repair. That, combined with the reckless labeling of all traditional media as “fake news,” means a toxic environment for newspapers that have faithfully served their communities for a century or longer.

Not only should government not be in the business of disseminating their own public notices; government shouldn’t want to. By handling the publication, verification, distribution and archiving of official notices, newspapers keep government from serving as its own publisher, distributor, certifier of the record and archivist. By handling public notices, newspapers give government officials legal protection from accusations of releasing incomplete or untimely information  — or of surreptitiously changing the record for the officials’ convenience. 

So it comes down to this: if you want to know what’s going on in your hometown, tell your local officials and your legislators to keep public notices in newspapers. It’s the civically healthy thing to do.

Don’t risk waking up one morning to the aroma of something foul being spread in your neighborhood.

Donnis Baggett is executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. TPA represents some 400 Texas newspapers, including this one. TPA campaigns in Austin for open records, open meetings, public notices and government accountability. Baggett may be reached at [email protected].