Guest Column: Putting public notices on the Internet ineffective and costly

  • Tuesday, February 12, 2013

  • Updated Monday, September 23, 2013 10:51 am

By Lisa Chalian-Rock

Don’t want to get a public notice seen? Then don’t put it in a newspaper.

A test in Darlington County showed newspaper public notices drew at least seven times the response produced by similar notices on a county website. And a survey done by an independent polling company hired by S.C. Press Association showed that nearly 80 percent of South Carolinians believe governments should be required to publish legal notices. A paltry 4.8 percent said they would read public notices if they were on the Internet.

Some in the state House of Representatives hope you aren’t paying attention to a piece of legislation that would reduce your ability to know what your government is doing. Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, has put forth a bill to remove county public notices from newspapers.

The step might seem small or unimportant to some, but it is a step toward secrecy and corruption.

These public notices do more than tell citizens when a government body will meet. If you have perused the legal notices in your local newspaper, you’ll see quite a variety during the course of a year, including tax liens, foreclosures, public hearings, public comment periods, liquor licenses, air and water quality permits and results, unserved warrants, zoning issues, and changes in codes as well as meeting dates and times.

Nanney’s legislation, which has been offered in previous sessions, was fast-tracked to a full floor vote rather than go through committee. Representatives wisely sent it back to committee.

For anyone who thinks that website publishing would solve the fiscal issues of the counties and still keep everyone informed, I have news for you: it won’t. For one, have you ever tried to find public notices on a government website?
Check out the sites of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control or the Federal Communications Commission. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack if you don’t have a direct link. I tried searching for a draft permit for more than an hour unsuccessfully, and still couldn’t get what I needed.

With the newspaper, the print may be small, but there’s usually a section header directing readers to legal notices, so you can actually find them. They’re in your hand, so you can verify that a notice was published… unlike a website, which can be tampered with quite easily by hackers. And legal notice information can be lost or damaged by a power surge.

In rural areas of the state, high-speed Internet isn’t the norm. Additionally, only 50 percent of farms have access to the Internet, according to a 2010 study by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Our state ranks third from the bottom among all states in farm Internet access.

Accessing public notices online would be more challenging for those who already have less representation at the state level. That seems fair, doesn’t it?

Contact your local representative and tell them you want to see notices stay in the newspaper where you can hold them in your hand and where you can prove they were published.

The more obstacles to the public receiving information about what their government is doing, the more incentive – and the more opportunity – for abuse. What better way to hide what you’re doing than to minimize access to the information?

Counties may want to save a buck, but at what cost? The true cost to citizens may be far higher than that of a print advertisement… it might just be their democracy.

Chalian-Rock is the editor of the News & Press in Darlington.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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