Our view: Keep public notices as public as possible
When government is changing zoning of land in your community or seeking bids to spend your tax money or exercising any number of its myriad powers, it is required by law to notify the public.
Different methods could be used to inform people about government business — which, after all, is the public’s business.
1. Notices could be taped on the door of government offices, emulating the custom of Martin Luther’s time. Not many people would take the time to regularly go by city, school, water district or county offices, so this wouldn’t be terribly effective. We’re being intentionally absurd.
2. The notice could be placed on the government body’s website. While this would be more convenient than going to each office to look for notes on the door, it still would require great diligence by interested taxpayers and regular visits to numerous websites. This, too, is absurd when a vastly better solution is already in place.
Government websites aren’t frequented by the public. For example, in September, Garfield County’s website, http://garfield-county.com/, had about 15,696 unique visits, most likely from a lot of realty agents, insurers and lawyers.
3. Notices could be published in the local newspaper, on its website and in a statewide online, searchable database created by the Colorado Press Association.
No. 3 is the current practice, a modern, digital approach that grew from a practice of publishing such notices in newspapers that is as old as the state of Colorado. (Newspapers, including the Post Independent and our sister weekly in Rifle, the Citizen Telegram, get paid for these ads. The price, set by law and unchanged since 1993, is the lowest ad rate newspapers offer and costs less than 1 percent of county budgets. It is the law because it best serves the public’s right to know its business.)
This is by far the most effective way to make the information available to large numbers of people. For example, postindependent.com in September had 113,845 unique visitors, seven times the traffic to the county’s site. (This is more than double the adult population of Garfield County, so many of our readers live elsewhere, as would be some of the county website’s visitors.) The PI also has 3,600 unique visitors per week to our e-edition — an electronic replica of the printed paper that appears on our website. Both the e-edition and the regular website include legal notices.
Colorado Counties Inc., the association of county commissioners, has voted to pursue state legislation to allow counties to post their legal notices on individual county websites instead of in community newspapers. Similar legislation failed in 2013.
In 2014, the Colorado Press Association won approval of legislation to create http://www.publicnoticecolorado.com/, a free, searchable digital compilation of public notices published in Colorado newspapers. It provides 24/7 access to statewide notices about foreclosures, hearings, advertisements for bids, financial reports, ordinances and other government activities required to be published.
This is a public service that takes advantage of modern technology. It provides an archive of notices — proof for the government agencies that they provided legally required notice. (It already is required that newspapers provide such third-party verification.)
It’s not reasonable to expect the public to keep track of governmental activities in a decentralized state like Colorado, which has 1,800 government entities — counties, municipalities, school boards, irrigation districts, fire districts and more agencies, boards and commissions — that must notify the public of planned actions.
We want independent publication to help prevent cozy contract deals or simple mistakes by careless bureaucrats. We want redundancy in case a county website crashes and accountability in case of mistakes.
We also know the costs of legal advertising now. The county proposal could end up costing money as counties examine the personnel and equipment they might need to post and maintain legals in a way that satisfies people who read legals — professionals who use them in their business and, in many cases, older residents who have long scoured legal notices to be aware of their government’s plans.
The county association’s proposal — on which Garfield County has not taken a position — would not apply to any other government bodies, an odd proposition that’s hard to justify. Why should counties notify the public any differently than the rest of government? If the county proposal were approved, then wouldn’t water districts, library boards and city councils seek the same, creating a real mess for public access.
The idea is a step backward — and, again, we admit that we exaggerate for effect — toward the time of Martin Luther.
We have a much more modern system in place now that better serves the public. The system isn’t broken.
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