When I talk with citizen groups in Tennessee about open government, people tell me they want more information about what their government is doing, not less.
An informed citizenry results in better and more accountable government. But in plain language, people just want to know what’s going on, particularly when it affects their lives directly. How do people get informed? How does information about what government is doing flow to the public? And in this day and age, what methods are reliable, trustworthy and accurate?
One reliable way is through the public notice laws. Government entities in Tennessee are required by law to publish public notices in local newspapers about a range of activities — public sales, regulations, bid lettings, meetings, seizures, ordinances and elections.
These statutes have developed over time because lawmakers have thought certain information was important enough that government entities needed to actively reach out and let people know.
The same community newspaper where you find local obituaries, high school football game photos, news coverage of government meetings and stories about new businesses in town is where you can reliably find public notices.
Carol Daniels, executive director of the Tennessee Press Association, said that a recent examination by her organization of circulation of printed newspapers in Tennessee showed that a majority reached at least 70 percent of households in their home counties each week.
Clearly, such newspapers that carry uniquely local news about their communities are still an effective way to deliver a local government message, too.
So what about the web? We all know it’s a powerful tool when we are searching for information. Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has continued to advocate that government entities that have websites should post information to their websites. We also supported a provision inserted into the law in 2013 that required newspapers that publish public notices in their printed editions to publish for free the same notices, including any maps and other exhibits, in their entirety, in their digital editions.
This law, which went into effect in April 2014, also required the newspapers to include links to these digital notices on the home pages of their websites, and required a statewide website to be established as a joint venture of these newspapers where all public notices in all newspapers in the state would reside free for anyone to peruse.
Here’s a link to that website, if you want to check it out: publicnoticeads.com/TN/search/searchnotices.asp
One advantage for the public when a third party publishes public notices — whether on an aggregated website or printed newspaper — is that they create a one-stop shop for the public, despite the notices coming from various government entities, banks and courts in a county or jurisdiction. Notices about government meetings, public hearings and budget information can be found along with other required legal notices, such as foreclosures, lien sales and court notices.
Put another way by Daniels: “The public would need to go and look on a dozen or so websites per day or week to get the same information that should be in their local papers. The difference is the information is delivered to the public versus you going and looking for it and knowing where to look.”
Some worry, with the rise of social media, that local community newspapers will disappear and no longer provide their historical role as a central interchange for hyper-local information. In some parts of the country, so-called “news deserts” have emerged where local community newspapers have closed and no one has replaced their function of providing independent, professional news coverage of local happenings.
While such loss has been alarming, in Tennessee, community newspapers remain an important local business in a majority of our counties.
These businesses contribute both to community life and commerce. Their unique role in providing effective and efficient outreach for public notice remains vital.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit entity that promotes transparency in government and education on public records and open meetings laws.