Keep Public Notices Public

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Posted April 2, 2021 | William R. Barker, Commentary

Editor’s note: The Florida Press Association shared this column.

From the founding of the U.S. Constitution, our forefathers intended that actions taken by the government be made public to the citizenry it serves. These public servants understood their obligation to keep the people on notice in regard to government meetings and actions that would affect them. More importantly, they recognized the need to give the people they represent a voice and a public forum in which they could address concerns, offer solutions, right wrongs and air grievances. In short, be active participants in our democratic form of self-government.

That simple expectation that the government keep its people publicly informed and involved in decision-making is as relevant today as ever.

Yet, some in our state legislature propose it’s time for a change. Through bills being introduced as HB-35 and SB-402, the Florida legislature is attempting to abolish the longstanding requirement that government agencies publish legal notices in newspapers, and instead post them, wait for it, on GOVERNMENT websites! Really?

So, the government wants you to go in search of information somewhere on a government website rather than place the information out there for you in public view?

Have they forgotten who serves whom? That YOUR tax dollars pay them to keep you informed of their actions and represent your views?

Such a proposal sounds self-serving at the very least. And, at worst, that the officials you elected may not really want you involved in, or well-informed about, what they are doing while representing you.

This is the proverbial fox watching the henhouse. Let’s not forget, it is the role of the independent press to be the watchdog – to curate and disseminate vital public information so the public can hold its representatives to account.

Removing notices from publishers of public record, means the majority of these actions will likely go unnoticed. Could that be the point of the bills? Sponsors say it is to save money. But is it? Does it? Is anyone really asking how? Frankly, publishing notices is not the government’s business. They outsource hundreds of non-governing activities. The current statute ensures public notices have the best opportunity to be seen by the public. And with the digital transformation of the publishing business, that will be true for generations to come.

The premise of saving money is flawed if you truly intend to reach the most citizens. Do you really expect voters to believe the government can do this more efficiently than businesses built for it? Public notices are just one of the many vital pieces of information they publish.

Maybe the politicians pushing the idea think the public won’t care that their government is pursuing a path toward less visibly and less transparency. Yes, it does seem in vogue these days for some elected officials to either dismiss the role of a free press or worse, to weaken it.

I can understand some representative’s frustration with national media coverage. But we are talking about the role of local newspapers as public providers of information vital to their communities being greatly diminished.

So, elected officials, please don’t lump all news organizations together. Abandon this attempt to eliminate the local watchdog and keep the voter’s voice out of the conversation. Both you and our local newspapers, as public servants, working toward the same end – a better Florida!

It’s worth repeating. Ours is a shared mission with a common goal – the betterment of Florida and Floridians! We should equally desire an engaged and informed citizenry.

As one of millions who calls the Sunshine State home and values transparent government, I ask that you stop pushing HB-35 and SB-402 and work with the Florida Press Association to keep government actions in the public light. Together, we can collaborate to serve our great state and revive and re-establish the public trust.

The citizens, the press, all of us, desire an open dialogue with elected officials to bring forth factual and trustworthy information for public discernment and debate. We can do this respectfully and with decorum. We will not always agree, but that’s the point of a democracy.

Fellow citizens, we encourage you to join us in our mission to KEEP PUBLIC NOTICES PUBLIC! Please call your legislators and ask them to VOTE NO to HB-35 and SB-402. Let them know you read about it in your local newspaper and you are watching what they do. Tell them that with mistrust in government at an all-time high, neither now nor ever, will it be time to replace watchdogs with foxes.

William R. Barker, Florida Press Association Board Member, Founder and CEO, Barker Strategic Solutions, LLC and former Florida Regional President for Gannett, the USA Today Network and LOCALiQ.

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