Newspaper Notice Requirements Defended
Hearing wrap up by Marty Schladen, El Paso Times:
AUSTIN — Lawmakers were skeptical Thursday about changing requirements that local governments post notices of meetings, elections, annexations and other such matters in the newspaper.
A select committee consisting of Texas senators and representatives met in the Capitol to hear testimony on a perennial issue — whether cash-strapped city councils, school boards, commissioner courts and other local entities should have to pay the local newspaper to get the word out about their business.
Some of those asking for changes said that newspaper circulation is declining and most people have access to the internet. So why not allow local governments to notify the public via the medium they think is best suited and most cost effective?
“Fewer people are getting their notice about any issue from a print newspaper,” said Bennett Sandlin of the Texas Municipal League, which represents cities.
Such notices are costing the largest Texas cities millions of dollars a year and Sandlin said the Legislature should consider requiring them to be placed instead on city websites, a state website or a newspaper website where advertising rates are cheaper.
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, mocked the idea that the public visits city websites in the numbers that they read newspapers or visit newspaper websites.
“I don’t know many people who say, ‘You know what? I haven’t checked out the city’s website in a while,' ” he said. “I think I’ll go and see what they’re doing.”
He said the point of advertising in the newspaper is to ensure that as many citizens as possible know about government business.
While more than 70 percent of Texans have access to high-speed internet, the 30 percent who don’t make up a group that shouldn’t be shut out of the process, said state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso. He said rates of connection to the internet are much lower among blacks, Hispanics, the poor and those who live in rural areas.
“Lack of access in a rural area is a huge problem,” he said, noting that’s particularly true in far West Texas counties he represents, such as Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis and Presidio.
Lack of access to online-only public notices would deepen as more people disconnect their homes from the internet and rely solely on mobile data via their smartphones, said Robert Moore, editor of the El Paso Times.
“The move to mobile presents digital-equity issues,” he said. “Lower income and rural residents are more likely to run into data-cap issues on mobile devices, particularly when they don’t have home broadband access that would allow them to create a Wi-Fi network.”
Taken together, the reach of newspapers and their websites is far greater than any government website, making them the best single repository for government notices, said Laura Prather, an Austin attorney who works on open-records issues.
Perhaps some public notices don’t need to be advertised in the newspaper, said Phillip Ellison of the Texas Association of School Business Officers.
He said school districts spend most of their public-notice money advertising construction work. Yet when he surveyed contractors, he found that very few look for possible jobs in the newspaper, he said.
By surveying only contractors, Ellison missed the point, said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock.
“The point of this information being available is for citizens to keep an eye on the process,” he said.
Even with current laws requiring public notice in general-circulation newspapers, local governments try to weasel their way around them and slip business to preferred contractors, Prather said, detailing several such instances.
Prather was speaking on behalf of Mike Weaver of Weaver and Jacobs Constructors Inc., a large construction firm in Cuero. She said the firm relies heavily on newspaper advertisements to find government-contracting business.
Gary Hendrix, a retired engineer who lives in Dripping Springs, described how a company tried to slip plans to build a concrete plant on the city’s edge past residents. The company posted notice two days before Christmas and it posted it in the San Marcos paper — even though Dripping Springs has a paper of its own.
Hendrix said people in his community turn to their paper for important information.
“Notice of a concrete plant coming into your backyard is a huge golden nugget of information,” he said.
Robert Rose of Bryan read a notice in the Bryan College Station Eagle saying that a local plastics company wanted to amend its permit so that it could emit more toxins into the air. As he did more research, he saw that the project would aggravate his and others’ respiratory problems and led a successful fight to stop the changes.
“I would not have known about this permit modification had I not read it in the local newspaper,” he said.
But many cash-strapped governments see the notice requirement as another costly requirement from the state.
Becky St. John, a trustee for the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, said local school boards should have the latitude to decide what the best way to post public notices is — even if that’s just on the district’s website. The state requirement for them to advertise in the newspaper was causing them a lot of expense that the state is not helping them pay, she said.
“It’s an unfunded mandate and we need more funds to do this,” said St. John, who was speaking on behalf of the Texas Association of School Boards.
State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, said nobody’s stopping school boards from posting notices on their own websites.
“More is better,” he said. “Not or is better.”
And state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, pointed out the self-serving way local governments sometimes provide information when left to their own devices. The webpage introducing the budget for St. John’s district brags about how the school board doesn’t propose to raise the tax rate, but is silent about how much revenue that would bring in, Hancock said.
“Sometimes you can pick and choose the information,” he said.
Moore said that when considered in the context of governments' overall budgets, expenditures on public notices are tiny.
“I looked at the city of El Paso’s budget as an example,” he said. “The city spends $218,000 on public notices from its general fund, out of a total budget of $375 million. That means the city is spending .0006 percent of its general fund on public notices that inform the citizenry about its actions. That is a small but impactful investment.”
Rodríguez said the expenditure also is small compared with what it buys taxpayers using their own money.
“It’s not a big price to pay to ensure transparency, accountability and freedom,” he said.
Legislative staffers said it’s unclear whether committee chairs state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, will call another hearing. Given that none of the lawmakers voiced support for loosening notice requirements, that may be unlikely.