Lawmakers, local governments want to revisit newspaper publication requirements
Illinois' newspapers are squaring off with some state lawmakers and local governments over the issue of posting public notices on the Internet rather than paying to print them.
Newspapers see it as an issue of maintaining government transparency and accountability by having the information published in a newspaper. Supporters of a bill to change the posting requirements see it as a way to save taxpayer money by making the information available on the Internet rather paying to place ads in newspapers.
"Local governments are cash-strapped," said Tim Bramlet, a lobbyist who represents associations of township officials and county assessors. "It's not the job of taxpayers to subsidize newspapers."
"It's hard to believe anyone would make that statement," said Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, comparing that to saying governments subsidize construction companies that build public roads.
"They (newspapers) provide a service by printing public notices just as any other vendor," he said.
At issue is House Bill 1869, sponsored by Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, and co-sponsored by two other House Democrats and two House Republicans. It allows local governments that are now required by law to post specific information in general-circulation newspapers to post the material on a website instead. The local government would then be required to place a notice in the newspaper alerting the public that the information is available on the Internet.
Public bodies are required to post notices about a wide range of information, including times of certain meetings, financial information, ballot information and even property assessments. The latter, said Bramlet, constitutes the largest outlay for public notices.
Cost: "in the millions"
Mautino said the idea of changing the public-notice requirement comes up regularly in the General Assembly, although each local government interest group usually pursues its own bill. This time, he said, all the groups are joining forces.
"They wanted me to conduct some talks. I think they are right - that we need to talk about it. The whole industry is changing," Mautino said.
He said he's convening talks starting next week to work through details of the public-notice issue. He wants a detailed list of all public-notice requirements for the state's nearly 7,000 taxing districts. He also wants information on just how much is spent by public bodies to comply with public-notice laws.
At this point, no one has a precise figure for the amount spent.
Bramlet said the figure is "easily in the millions". Brian Day, staff attorney for the Illinois Municipal League, a supporter of the bill, said the IML is compiling a list of expenses, but it isn't complete yet. The Illinois Press Association is also trying to compile the information by asking newspapers to file Freedom of Information Act requests to counties and school districts in their areas.
Sangamon County was unable to immediately provide an accounting of its expenses for legal notices.
Mautino said he wants taxing bodies to show how they will maintain transparency if the notice requirements are changed.
"You should know what's going on in your neighborhood," Mautino said.
He also said newspapers will have to show that "they're giving the best rates for something that we are requiring in law, that local governments charge their local property taxpayers to pay for."
DeRossett said that while the IPA has been invited to a meeting and will participate, it would have been better to hold talks before a bill was filed. He also said the ad rate for assessment notices is set by law and hasn't changed since the late 1970s.
The IPA says posting public notices only on the Internet will disenfranchise those who do not have access to computers.
"There is a digital divide in the country, especially in this state," DeRossett said. "If you have no way to get to the information, it does no good."
That issue is one reason the Illinois AARP is opposed to the bill.
"Older adults tend to be more actively involved in government activities," said spokeswoman Heather Underwood. "Not all older adults are skilled at the Internet. They are used to getting their information from newspapers."
Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, a co-sponsor of the bill, said those without Internet access could be directed to a public library or other location that has public Internet access if they want to read public notices. He isn't sure that's a large problem anyway.
"More households have access to the Internet than subscribe to newspapers of general circulation," Tryon said.
DeRossett said circulation numbers don't reflect who has access to public notices. Studies have shown that each newspaper is read by nearly three people.
Notices needed at all?
Attorney General Lisa Madigan has some concerns about the bill, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler.
"We are interested in encouraging the use of the Internet to expand the availability of government information, but we also have concerns about limiting the way the government must notify the public about their actions," she said.
The government watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform hasn't taken a position, said assistant director David Morrison.
"I don't know how many actually do scour the legal notices. I don't know that they get a lot of attention anyway," he said.
The organization would be concerned if lawmakers scale back the amount of information that needs to be posted. Mautino said his talks will include a review to determine if some notices have outlived their usefulness.
DeRossett said the talks will show the issue hasn't been completely thought through.
"We welcome Mautino's invitation to discuss this," he said. "There are points that have not been addressed by the bill."
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.