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Opposed to HB 1399

OPINION by Editorial | February 19, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The Sentinel-Record joins with a number of media organizations across the state, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Arkansas Press Association, in opposing a bill that would require local governments to post certain notices online rather than printing them in local newspapers.

House Bill 1399, by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, of Walnut Ridge, would strike language from current law that requires municipalities and counties to publish notices related to delinquent taxes, elections, ordinances and financial statements in local newspapers.

Under Cavenaugh's bill, jurisdictions would instead have to post these notices on government sites.

The bill, which was filed last week, would not affect other types of official notices, including legal notices, bids and foreclosure notices.

Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association told the Democrat-Gazette recently the bill could lead to notices across the state being posted on hundreds of different websites, which could make it difficult for the public to find information. In some instances, she said, the legislation appeared to allow municipalities to run notices either on government websites or in newspapers, which could create confusion. In some parts of the state, viewing websites also could be difficult because of limited internet access.

Our argument against the bill is simple: requiring all governmental entities to place their notices in a single location -- the newspaper of record -- allows for a "one-stop shopping" aspect to keeping the public informed.

In addition to being published in our newsprint edition, which is available seven days a week and home-delivered on Sunday, all legal notices are free to view on The Sentinel-Record website. No subscription is needed to view any legal notice that is published on our digital editions.

You will notice the bill does not require a standard across all government entities for displaying the notices; there is also not a requirement that there be a centralized location, either in a city or a county, for posting the notices.

Let's use the local school districts as an example. Garland County has seven public school districts; each of them is required by state law to publish certain information, including salary schedules for certified and noncertified personnel.

One of the items the districts include in that information is a simple calendar of the school year. You would think as you go from district to district they would all look the same, but a quick search shows they do not. On one website, it is displayed as an image file. On another, it is an interactive calendar. On a third, it is a link to a Google folder ... and so on.

That isn't to say any of these districts are not in compliance. But without a standard, you are going to see variations from district to district.

Now, magnify that variance across 75 counties, and you begin to see the problem.

Without a standard, you will likely see a similar circumstance with public notices. We're sure that in larger, better organized and funded (by public tax dollars) government offices, you'll have more options for viewing notices. In small, less well funded jurisdictions, likely not so much.

Finally, there is the issue of transparency that media organizations have raised repeatedly. Our position is that public notices need to appear outside of a government-run website. As the APA has noted, "Printed newspaper notices are permanent, affordable, archived, independent of government and well-read."

One out of every two Arkansans rely on local newspapers for public notices and information regarding their local government, and 65% of Arkansas adults believe publishing public notices in Arkansas newspapers should be required, based on a 2022 statewide study of Arkansas adults aged 18 and older, conducted by Coda Ventures, according to the APA.

It would be a shame if they were suddenly cut off from that information, especially in areas of the state where there is little if any broadband or internet access.

Print Headline: Opposed to HB 1399


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