Guest opinion: Keep legal notices where the public can find them
November 18, 2014
When government is adopting new zoning regulations, reviewing applications for retail marijuana licenses or inviting dialogue and discussion about any number of the myriad powers it may exercise, it is required by Colorado law to notify the public. Since statehood, Colorado's public has relied on local newspapers to publish such 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 was defeated 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 third-party verification.)
It's unreasonable to expect the public to keep track of governmental activities in a decentralized state such as 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 also know the costs of legal advertising. The counties' 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 counties association proposal – on which Pitkin 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?
The proposal also is a step backward. It doesn't feel right to do away with third-party verification, a permanent print and digital archive and distribution platforms known to Coloradans for more than 100 years.
We have a much more modern system in place now that better serves the public.
We question whether it makes sense to ask government to control the very business it is required to share with the public. If a government website crashes during the period of time that a citizen is looking for a particular liquor hearing, who will be responsible for helping that citizen to attend a meeting designed to encourage dialogue? How will that citizen get the information she needs before it's too late? And how will the impact be measured if local voices aren't heard on topics of community interest? Worse, who is responsible when a notice is published to the Web with a mistake? Do we ask the government to supervise the government? That's an unreasonable request regardless of the organization.
Even if we made the assumption — which we won't do — that government would flawlessly execute public notices, the data tells us that transparency will be reduced if notices move from newspapers and newspaper sites to government websites.
For example, in September, Pitkin County's website, which is a shared site with the city of Aspen, had 29,671 users and 97,156 page views. The Aspen Times had 139,903 users and 932,872 page views that same month.
It simply makes sense to continue with the modern practice in place: a digital approach that grew from a practice of publishing such notices in newspapers that is as old as the state of Colorado.
We'd be remiss if we didn't address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Some newspapers get paid to publish legal notices. Paid publications are paid according to rates established by state statute and unchanged since 1993. Public-notice advertising rates are the lowest ad rates that newspapers offer and the costs amount to less than 1 percent of county budgets.
This guest opinion first appeared as an editorial in the Aspen Times, which is owned and operated by the same company as the Sky-Hi News.
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