S2855 / A4429 – “Electronic Publication of Legal Notices Act”; permits publication of legal notices by government agencies and persons on official government notice websites instead of newspapers.
This bill was fast-tracked. It was first introduced to legislative committees on Dec. 12, 2016 and was slated for a vote by the Senate and Assembly today, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. The short timeframe left little time for review, discussion, or input by the public, organizations, and legislators themselves. This subversion of the democratic process – or more accurately, the reason behind it – is an example why a strong independent press is so important. Links to some media articles are at the bottom of this post. What follows is the statement that NJFOG released to legislators (though the below version is edited from the initial release). We hope that it added to the conversation, provided additional clarity on the issues, and gave legislators more reason to reject the bill.
STATEMENT BY NJFOG
(revised on 7/1/2017)
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) opposes S2855 / A4429. NJFOG feels that public access and transparency are best served by having a single complete searchable online database for public notices, and NJFOG supports use of the New Jersey Press Association’s (NJPA’s) existing public notice service for this purpose (http://www.njpublicnotices.com/). The site is already in widespread use as the “go to” source for public notices. The proposed legislation would, in fact, have the effect of reducing the information available on the NJPA site.
Allowing local governments to publish legal notices on their own websites provides no easy way for someone interested in a specific topic to research it. For example, a contractor who wants to know about projects for which bids have been requested would have to search dozens of websites in his service area. The differences in website design and navigation across the state’s hundreds of municipalities, boards of education, and independent authorities further complicates the search.
Legal notices cover a broad range of topics of public interest, including local ordinances and professional appointments, development plans, construction applications, meeting announcements, requests for bids and contract awards, foreclosures, tax sales, and even adoptions and name changes, among other categories. Printed notices in newspapers, in concert with the NJPA’s online public notice search engine, provide an easy at-a-glance way for individuals to learn about the topics that interest them. Printed publication remains the sole source for legal notices for persons who do not use the internet, namely seniors, who comprise a significant portion of the population.
Since roughly 80% of revenue from legal notices comes from private parties rather than public agencies, the savings anticipated from the legislation may be much less than projected. There may be no savings at all, but rather significant additional cost to local governments, if new administrative costs are considered. Municipalities that now pay a few thousand dollars a year on public notices may pay considerably more to a staffer or vendor to maintain the agency’s public notice site or oversee the program.
Further, it is unknown whether there will be a central searchable database of public notices under the proposed legislation, whether the State is planning to award a contract to achieve this, or what the cost would be to taxpayers. Again, we see that the new costs could more than offset any projected savings.
Many other issues concerning S2855 / A4429 also have not been adequately addressed. It’s unclear whether publication on a government website would be optional or mandatory for private parties who are required to publish notices, and it’s unknown what the potential fees would be or how they would be determined. It’s also unclear whether there would be uniform guidelines across public agencies or whether they would each set their own rules and fees, creating a greater burden on citizens. Another question is whether a governmental agency, itself, could vary its protocol for providing public notice — sometimes using its own website and sometimes a newspaper — or must stick to a single approach. If the former, a public body could potentially “hide” notice of a sensitive issue where people are not in the habit of looking.
THE NJPA DATABASE
The NJPA’s public notices site (http://www.njpublicnotices.com/) is designed to include New Jersey notices published by all publications. Some publications also provide access to published notices on their own websites, but access may be limited to current notices only, such as those published that week by a weekly paper, for example. The NJPA site provides a single searchable online repository.
Improving upon the NJPA’s existing search engine — e.g., for the technical challenges of gathering ads from multiple sources — may require all media publications to work closely with the NJPA. Since this directly benefits the public, it is appropriate that any administrative cost to publications be covered by government, which has the integral responsibility to make public information available. Two alternative approaches are: 1) Governments could pay a subsidy that is a flat fee per type of agency (local, county or state) or a sliding fee based on number of households in a locale, for example. Since government would be subsidizing online publication, newspapers could, as part of this approach, publish notices in print for a more favorable rate, so that seniors and others who are not internet-connected would continue to be served. 2) A second approach would involve no change to the current fees charged for print publication, but would include a mandate for all publications to work in concert with the NJPA to ensure that its public notices service is a comprehensive resource.
Either approach benefits all parties – government, the media, and the public. The public benefits by having complete free online access to public notices, a central searchable statewide database, and continued access to printed notices. Government benefits by either saving money over current publication costs or by avoiding the additional administrative costs resulting from the proposed legislation. The media benefits by retaining both revenue and published content for its customers.
There is no question that the proposed legislation harms the press and that a thriving press is important to the efficient operation of government. The importance of the media’s role as watchdog to ensure checks and balances, and to guard against abuse of taxpayer funds, cannot be overstated. That is another reason why a cooperative approach to the publication of legal notices – one that benefits everyone and that improves upon existing resources – is the right solution.
June 30, 2017
Per this article, there was an attempt to revive the controversial public notices bill as part of state budget negotiations in June 2017.