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GIBSON: 'Get point' on public notices

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I remember my initiation into a college leadership society. Blindfolded and taken into the woods somewhere in Blount County, we were paraded one-by-one in front of student leaders, who would recite some moral maxim, poke us on the chest and ask: “Get the point?”

That flashback (or senior moment) came as state Sen. Brian Kelsey lectured fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on why it would be a waste of taxpayer money to “publish” notices of proposed constitutional amendments anywhere but on one of two possible state government websites.

No, it wasn’t an urge to poke the Republican Senator from Germantown with a “Get the point?” That would violate every protocol of civility and would disrespect not only his elected office but his right to an opinion. It was more to do with how misguided and unnecessary his proposal was.

His point was: why pay to “publish” something “in the back pages of newspapers” near the classifieds when “constitutional amendments are front page stories?”

It would be better and cheaper, according to Senator Kelsey, to post the notice on the Secretary of State’s or the General Assembly website because the Internet is “a free, environmentally friendly, and better source to notify the public...”

I’m not sure where he got this “free” Internet. My monthly Internet service bill is five times higher than my newspaper, and that doesn’t count the cost of the computer.

The senator’s point on “free” was that anyone who does not own a computer - one in four households -- can run down to the public library every day to see what ran on those two websites that day. His resolution didn’t even specify where to look.

What is the point? Don’t “publish” a notice - as the Constitution requires -- in a newspaper of general circulation which becomes so identified because it’s where the public finds coverage of government and other information of general interest?

To Sen. Kelsey, public notice is “a special interest giveaway of taxpayer dollars.” He told the Judiciary Committee “it’s a privilege that’s been granted to them (newspapers). That’s not a reason to be increasing state spending in this budget environment.”

Kelsey is on a three-year mission to constitutionally ban a state income tax that some contend is already banned. His goal is to remove arguments that could be raised against his resolution, including a $20,000 budget item.

He correctly noted in a newspaper op-ed that Democrats had blocked his amendment in the past. That is not a factor anymore. Senator Kelsey’s party has firm control of both the House and Senate. So, what’s the point?  He admonished all legislators to keep their campaign promise of cutting government spending.

He ignores - by choice or convenience - other serious implications of his proposal.

If the legislature sets the precedent of posting its notices on the Internet, how can it tell city and county officials they can’t do likewise? Bills by city and county governments were already filed when the Judiciary Committee rejected Senator Kelsey’s resolution on a 5-4 vote. So were proposals to put the Secretary of State in the business of posting foreclosure notices and legislation to give that office the power to determine which publications meets the qualifications to run public notices.

Former state Attorney General Paul Summers used some of the results of a 2010 statewide survey by Connected Tennessee to show the danger of changing the decades-old system of public notice on something as important as amending the state Constitution.

Proposals to move local government public notices to local government websites contain interesting language to justify the move.  One, from Chattanooga, states:

“WHEREAS, there has been a steady decline in newspaper readership in the past several decades, while, at the same time there has been an increase in the number of households with access to the Internet; and

“WHEREAS, many counties and municipalities maintain an official government web site that is available to the public twenty-four hours per day; and

“WHEREAS, many legal notices published solely in newspapers go unread and unnoticed by the public because casual newspaper readers generally do not read the legal notices section; and

“WHEREAS, permitting the publication of legal notices on an official government web site will make those notices more easily accessible to a greater number of people, thereby promoting increased public participation in government; now, therefore.”

I’m not certain where those broad assumptions come from, but an analysis of the survey by the broadband advocacy group Connected Tennessee showed some glaring statistics beyond the finding that 25 percent of “households” do not own a computer. Among them:

• 63 percent of households reported they had never “interacted” with a state government website.

• 73 percent reported they had not “reacted” with a local government website.

• 62 percent reported “reading online newspapers or other news sources” on the internet. The only web “activity” that scored higher was the use of Internet search engines.

• A third of Tennessee county governments don’t have websites.

• Nationally, 38 percent of senior citizens do not go online for any information.

The numbers get even starker when you look at county-by-county numbers.  That breakdown on the Connected Tennessee website helps show the disparities between newspaper readership and Internet access and use.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers represents all or part of seven counties in northeast Middle Tennessee, right outside of Nashville.

Audited newspaper circulation data show 66 percent of residents in those seven counties read newspapers. ConnectedTN’s data show 68 percent of households own a computer, 49 percent have access to broadband Internet, 36 percent have looked at a state website, 22 percent have “interacted” with a local government web site, and 55 percent get information from newspaper websites and other online news sources. One county which has no city or county website showed more than 80 percent buy weekly or daily newspapers.

When you look at Senator Kelsey’s home county, 81 percent of households own computers, 71 percent have broadband access, 62 percent have not interacted with a state website, and 69 percent have not looked at a local government website, but 74 percent reported reading online newspapers. And that doesn’t include the thousands who read the Commercial Appeal, Memphis Daily News and other local publications in Shelby County.

Despite Senator Kelsey’s protestations, this makes online public notices a major open government issue. And, that is the point?

Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit group of citizens, media and legal professionals. He can be reached at fgibson@tcog.info, at 615-202-2685, or at P.O. Box 22248, Nashville 37202.

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February 28, 2011 at 12:26pm
It needs to go on the website. The times have already changed.
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