Like a bad penny, legislation to hide public notices from the public is about to be considered in the Illinois General Assembly.
These laws routinely come under attack in Springfield as many lawmakers attempt to move public notices to government-run websites or even abolish certain public notices altogether.
Rep. Johathon Carroll (D-Northbrook) introduced HB0811 that would call for moving notices from newspapers to government websites. The bill currently has two co-sponsors — Rep. Daniel Didech (D-Buffalo Grove) and Rep. Sam Yingling (D-Round Lake Beach).
This is basically the same bill that was introduced by Rep. Joseph Sosnowski and defeated in 2017.
This bill will have a detrimental impact on more than 400 newspapers across Illinois that currently publish these notices.
It removes the requirement to post the notices on PublicNoticeIllinois.com a website created in 2011 at no additional cost to the government.
Public bodies are already required by law to post meeting notices, agendas and minutes to their own websites, but most fail to comply.
According to the Illinois Press Association, compliance to this statute ranges from a low of 53% for townships to a high of 96% for school districts. Of the over 7,000 units of government in Illinois, less than half even have their own website.
Why are public notices important?
Along with open meeting and freedom of information laws, a public notice is an essential element of the three-legged stool of government transparency.
Public notices catalog government actions in cases of competitive bidding, rezonings, budget hearings, auctions, property transfers, delinquent tax notices, street name changes and more. They alert the public to disruptive land-use changes for things like sewer plants, asphalt plants and garbage incinerators. They tell the public in advance about proposals for traffic-clogging, high-density developments and plans for wider roads or new roads.
In the midst of a pandemic, we should not cut off access to Illinoisans. Government should be providing further transparency of what they are doing.
Access to information and to the government’s discussion of the public’s business IS a vital public policy issue.
I would argue that all other issues — whether they are balancing the state’s budget, improving education, resolving labor issues, notification about expanding an airport, among other concerns — are dependent, at least partially, to having access to the government’s business. Instead of eroding the public’s right to know, county commissioners and city council members should be providing as much information as possible to all their constituents, including the many who have no internet access or poor service.
Internet access continues to be an issue in Illinois. The best broadband coverage in the state is concentrated in northeastern counties, with comparatively less coverage in the southeast. Broadband access is lower among older adults, minorities, low income households and rural communities.
Newspapers remain the primary vehicle for public notices in all 50 states.
The cost to place public notices in newspapers represents hundredths of a per cent of a local government’s budget annually. This would significantly impact transparency of what government is doing and the public’s right to know.
Although they cost local government a small amount of money, public notices generate revenue for communities by compelling the collection of past-due taxes.
What role do newspapers play?
Newspapers are a community forum. That role doesn’t change with the manner in which you receive local news that’s important to you.
Newsprint is inherently superior to the internet for public notice because reading a newspaper is a serendipitous process. We find things in newspapers we weren’t expecting to see. On the internet, we search for specific information and ignore everything else.
Since the first U.S. Congress, public officials have understood that newspapers are the best public medium to notify the public about official matters because they contain the essential elements of public notice: accessibility, independence, verifiability and archivability.
The public relies on newspapers more often than any other source of information.
It is an important check and balance service that newspapers have provided to local governments for decades, and yes, they are paid for it. These notices do not subsidize the operation of small-town newspapers. They keep the public informed.
Removing the newspaper publication cost would scarcely be noticed on local government budget ledgers.
This is going to be framed as a cost savings measure for local governments, but it is not.
This is about hiding the public’s business. An attempt which will leave vulnerable taxpayers in the dark about local government meetings as well as the decisions and taxes to which those meetings might lead.