The legal notices that governmental entities pay to place in newspapers as a means of informing the public have played an important role in informing citizens about the actions of their government for more than 200 years.
Nearly every year someone in the Colorado Legislature proposes a bill to end the requirement that governmental agencies publish such notices in newspapers. This year, Senate Bill 156 would eliminate the requirement that counties’ financial information be published.
For decades, those bills have been defeated, mostly through the hard work of newspapers and other advocates for public access to information, but there’s no stopping the onslaught, for two reasons. First, a cost is associated with purchasing that advertising. When budgets are tight, governments, usually counties, propose that posting the notices on their own websites will be less expensive and equally effective. The second reason: Some public officials would prefer citizens not to have easy access to such information.
Newspapers and their websites remain much more effective at making information easily available to citizens. They are far more widely read than county websites, especially in rural areas where access to the internet isn’t universal.
For citizens who prefer to read online, all legal newspapers in the state post their notices to an aggregated website, PublicNoticeColorado.com, at no additional cost.
Newspapers simply provide greater access, and it’s done very affordably. Newspapers’ rates for public notices are governed by statute and have not changed since 1993.
They also publish notices in a verifiable way. Because of longstanding legislation, publishing such information – the best way of making it available to the public – is legally required, and newspapers provide documentation so both governments and constituents can verify that it’s been done as required.
At a time when public confidence in government is low, that’s an essential service that builds trust. Newspapers provide a permanent physical record, accessible even when websites change or are hacked.
The more important point to consider is the very real cost incurred by not making public notices as widely available as possible. That hampers public participation in government – and that restriction is antithetical to our American political system. Not a single one of our checks and balances should be thoughtlessly discarded in service to the budget.
Involving the press in holding governments accountable is an important safeguard built into both American tradition and Colorado law. Like newspaper coverage of public meetings, public notices help constituents know what their elected officials are doing on their behalf.
An amended version of SB156, which does not alleviate public-information advocates’ concerns, passed the House. Thank you to 58th Dist. Rep. Marc Catlin and 59th Dist. Rep. Barbara McLachlan for voting against it and advocating for continued transparency.
The Senate, with a disappointing “yes” vote by 6th Dist. Sen. Don Coram, posed no obstacle.
The bill still needs to be signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who in the past has opposed measures that restrict the public’s ability to access information from governmental agencies. He should veto this one, and the General Assembly should stop considering such bills, which are not good for Colorado citizens.