In March, this space featured an opinion on freshman Alabama lawmaker Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, and his legislation to save millions for Alabama taxpayers.
With his sponsorship of two bills, HB576 and HB577, which deal with the advertisement of public notices moving out of local newspapers, heading toward the House State Government Committee, we must repeat our concerns.
The truth is Sorrell’s legislation of stripping public notices from newspapers and plunking them on a website managed by the Secretary of State is a direct hit to transparency, and overall, not good for Alabama.
The legislation includes an “opt-out” clause for counties and municipalities if they believe a public notice on the website would not provide adequate notice, which immediately questions the validity and potential reach of the state-operated website.
The presumption that everyone is online and will visit government websites to ponder bids, ordinances and resolutions is not feasible.
Yes, elected leaders must be responsible trustees over tax dollars. However, spending money to publish proposed actions of government, voters lists and other information required by law is a wise and trusted investment.
Government across the United States has one purpose — serve the people. That’s also the principle behind newspapers in holding government at all levels accountable and transparent.
We do that locally with news coverage of city and county affairs, and in paid public notices that report the details of foreclosures, tax liens, bond issues, city council ordinances and other vital civic matters.
The publication of public notices is a valuable resource for citizens and government alike. For a citizen, it is a means of keeping up with the actions of government. For government, it is a way to ensure transparency and build trust with the people it serves.
The availability and clear display of public notices through newspapers has alarmingly come under threat from government, particularly at the state level.
In Alabama, passage of these two bills would be a disservice to the people. Internet access is not reliable in many rural areas — an issue that was pushed through the House earlier this session by Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview.
The thought of only finding public notices on government websites is disturbing, too. Many of those sites are not regularly updated like those of newspapers.
We question, too, if government would take the time or initiative to inform the public when new notices are posted.
Sorrell and others who support moving public notices from newspapers also fail to mention there are expenses involved in having a public employee input, aggregate, categorize and distribute the public notices.
The long history of publishing these notices in newspapers provides a trusted, and expected, source that residents can turn to each day. Maintaining this valued delivery system ensures transparency and keeps a sense of trust between citizens and elected leaders.
Even though public notices are also posted online by newspapers, including The News Courier, the print editions of these legal notices remain the most reliable, trusted platform for reaching people.
As these two bills begin a hopefully short-lived legislative journey, we encourage all public officials to continue publishing notices in newspapers, which provides access to the highest number of citizens through both print and online.
Newspapers, through the crucial foundation of the First Amendment, take seriously their role of informing the public about important civic activities and decisions.
It’s our hope members of Limestone County’s legislative delegation vigorously oppose HB576 and HB577 for the purpose of keeping the community informed and maintaining transparency.