Local governments say proposed legislation in several states that would allow cities to advertise public hearings and other government activities on their websites instead of in local newspapers would save taxpayer money while still providing public access to important notices. Newsprint advocates counter that the Internet is still not widely enough used and may, in fact, disproportionately discriminate against older, poorer, or more rural residents who do not use or do not have computer access.

Bills for such changes have been proposed in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia and Florida. Several towns in Wake County, N.C., have begun the shift from newspaper to website. Apex, N.C., passed an ordinance three years ago to switch to its website, says Mayor Keith Weatherly. Weatherly says the Wake County area, with its abundance of research universities and technology companies, has no lack of high-speed Internet service, making the online ads widely available. “Our estimated cost savings [on public notice advertising] runs about $19,000 annually,” he says.

Posting legal ads online also is more efficient for Apex because the city staff does not have to spend time checking that a newspaper published all of the city's legal notices, Weatherly says. Statewide change in North Carolina has not been as successful, Weatherly says. “In the last session of legislature in 2009, a bill that would give authority to all local governments [the ability to pass such local ordinances] ran into heavy opposition, and the press association lobbyist was very powerful in beating it back,” he says.

However, some communities, such as Cedar Springs, Mich., oppose the shift for fear that some residents would be disenfranchised. Instead, Cedar Springs focuses on saving on advertising costs by putting its public notices in a local weekly paper instead of the local daily newspaper. “We have a lot of hourly people in the community, and many who don't have Internet access,” says Mayor Charlie Watson. “I had to ask, ‘Are we really serving them to save $3,000 a year?’”

Giving notice

The concept of posting public notices in a newspaper, rather than on a post in the town square, began with the publication of the first English language newspaper in 1665, a court newspaper called “The Oxford Gazette” that carried notices from the King's Court, London officials and even from outlying regions.

Source: Public Notice Resource Center, “History of Public Notice,” www.pnrc.net/about-public-notices/legislative-updates/history-of-public-notice/

Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.

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