The Senate passed SB461 on March 14 by a vote of 31-1 and sent it to the House, where companion legislation HB1001 sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Haynes, R- Knoxville, passed in an overwhelming 94-1 vote on March 25.
The bill will require newspapers that print notices and “legals” to also publish them on the paper’s local website and to take the added step of posting them on a statewide website at no extra cost. The statewide website will be maintained as a service and initiative of a majority of Tennessee newspapers.
Yager, the county executive and county attorney for Roane County for more than two decades, explained the value of the new requirements. Placing notices in all three places, starting with a “newspaper of general circulation,” ensures the widest distribution and readership. Of equal or greater value, the veteran public servant explained, is the fact that it preserves the tradition of third-party, independent publication.
“I appreciate the leadership of Tennessee newspapers in trying to get ahead of this issue,” said Yager, chairman of the important Senate State and Local Government Committee. He noted that the pros and cons of putting notices exclusively on government websites had been debated time and again since he came to the General Assembly.
Acknowledging that communication technology continues to evolve, Yager reminded his colleagues to keep in mind that public notices are a key component of “openness in government.”
“This bill recognizes the public’s right to know what is going on in their government,” Yager explained. “I don’t think there is a better time to affirm that than now. Using an independent agency, the local newspaper, builds integrity in the process. To give even the appearance of manipulating mandatory public notices tarnishes the reputation of government because it undermines the concept of independence and transparency.”
Nodding to the growth of Internet readership, Yager explained, “... This bill combines the best of both worlds. It keeps notices in places where more people can find them by ensuring the widest distribution. It comes at no extra cost to taxpayers and promotes government transparency, efficiency and public trust.”
Despite those laudatory words, passage of SB461/HB1001 will not end the debate over moving public notices to the Internet, but it should help.
Discussion on the Senate floor as Sen. Yager presented the bill showed it will continue as long as some officials fail to recognize that public notice is one of the legs of a stool holding up true government transparency. The others are open records and open meetings.
A few senators praised the legislation — one even praised newspapers — for taking a “step in the right direction.”
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a Chattanooga Republican, noted that he had been one of the lawmakers who had advocated earlier moving notices to government websites in Hamilton County to save the government money.
“This is moving in the proper direction,” Watson said.
“Could this create a monopoly for Tennessee newspapers?” Knoxville Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield asked rhetorically. “Doesn’t this exclude anyone who is not a Tennessee newspaper?”
Yager explained politely that the bill doesn’t change specific public notice requirements.
“The statutes (already) say Tennessee newspapers,” Yager said.
The day before, Campfield had joined five other members of the Senate Transportation Committee in voting to end the practice of advertising for competitive bids on highway construction projects. Newspapers are a constant target of Campfield-sponsored legislation. He proposed in 2011 to move public notices out of Knoxville newspapers for 18 months and put them on Knox County government websites.
Sen. Mike Bell, a freshman from Riceville, asked Yager how many newspapers do not have websites. Actually, there are two, and Yager pointed out that they have until April 1, 2014 to comply. Bell sponsored legislation last year to stop advertising public hearings to review the performance of state agencies. He praised Yager’s bill as the “first step toward” moving notices out of newspapers “and saving our constituents back home hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey explained in the past he has advocated, and likely will continue to advocate, moving public notices to a website operated by the Tennessee secretary of state.
He said the state department could publish notices at “a fraction of the cost” of printing them in newspapers.
“I appreciate that the Tennessee Press Association has acknowledged we are in the 21st century,” the Germantown Republican said.
At some point, perhaps someone should inform Chairman Kelsey that many Tennessee newspapers have been posting public notices on their heavily trafficked local Internet websites and a statewide searchable public notice website for some time now.
So you can see, the debate will continue because there are various political agendas still at play. One prominent Senate leader still maintains that public notices are a government subsidy for newspapers. That sentiment is expressed publicly in many other states where public notice has been under attack.
Passage of SB461/HB1001 gives newspapers the opportunity to demonstrate that they remain the best avenue for informing the public on the actions of government, but they still need to make public notices as visible as possible, and continue to remind the public those notices are an essential part of being a government watchdog.