Legislation takes aim at newspaper publishersPublished 11:55pm Friday, February 19, 2010
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
State Rep. Sharon Tyler, R – Niles, caught some attention this week when she co-sponsored several House bills that would allow municipal governments to post their legal notices on their own Web sites and not require them to publish their notices in local newspapers.
Tyler claims the laws will ease financial burdens on cities and townships, but some say the move would also take a swing at the public’s right to know, by taking independent publication out of the loop.
“These bills are part of a larger package designed to offset some of the costs that cities, townships, villages and counties are required to spend by publishing notices in newspapers,” Tyler told the Star via e-mail. “As state revenue continues to decline it is important that we look at every possible government reform to use our funds in the most effective manner.”
That is not going over so well with some newspaper publishers.
“Well, I think that they’re not good bills,” David Holgate, publisher of the Herald Palladium in St. Joseph, said Friday. “I think they’re a little short-sighted. Obviously citizens need information about what their cities and townships are doing.”
Tyler also said Friday that the legislation was something desired by members of her constituency.
“Public officials have asked that we pursue this legislation to help struggling, local units of government,” she said. “This is one of many cost savings reforms that will be introduced this year. Market demands and cost-cutting measures are forcing media outlets to supplement or replace traditional newspapers with online e-news. We’re looking to give municipalities options in how and where to publish notices and make those notices more effective.
“If these bills become law, a municipality would be required to post the notice in their local office and also on either their Web site, a newspaper’s Web site, a local access TV channel or continue posting notices in the local print newspaper,” Tyler said. “This legislation supports transparency and the public’s right to know while saving precious tax dollars, money that may mean keeping a firefighter or police officer from being laid off.”
That is not the opinion of the local press.
Each bill gives townships and cities the option of where they choose to publish their notices. For publishers, the issue doesn’t seem to be the costs – but the loss of accountability to citizens about local government action.
“The public’s right to know outweighs the agenda of Sharon Tyler,” said Mary Beth Moriarty, publisher of the New Buffalo Times.
“Sometimes newly elected officials don’t have enough background to be elected to public office,” she continued. “And they’re not aware of the protection of people’s rights and they take on protection of government over those they serve.”
Newspapers have been held to regulations in order to be “legitimate sources of notice,” she said. “And now Mrs. Tyler wants to eliminate those requirements that we have had to comply with for hundreds of years.”
Tyler claims the measure would save the average township an estimated $14,000 per year. “With 1,240 townships in Michigan this would save them approximately $1.7 million every year.”
Niles City Clerk Ruth Harte estimated $3,000 is spent through her department in publishing notices each year. She said she would likely publish notices through both venues should the bills pass into law – at least to start.
“This has been talked about for a long time simply in light of the fact that last year so many newspapers went out off business or consolidated,” she said. “For some clerks I know, listening to other clerks, that was no longer an option for them so they were basically panicking.”
Local governments are required by law to publish their legal notices in newspapers.
Townships, Harte said, are required to publish their minutes as well.
“Until such time as the city’s Web site became newsworthy, I would do both to make sure there was adequate coverage for the legal notice,” she said.
Newspaper publishers like Moriarty and Holgate are hoping the bills won’t become an issue.
“I think that these citizens have a hard enough time knowing what their townships and cities are doing,” Holgate said. “And if you take the ability to see it in community newspapers away” it may become even harder.
“You can not trust the government to monitor itself and that is the main purpose of a newspaper,” Moriarty said.
The New Buffalo publisher said she has spoken to Tyler since the state representative introduced the bills, calling the move an “ethical punch in the face” and voiced her opinion.
Tyler said response from the public has been positive.
“The public’s response has been very positive. We need to find savings and enact smart, government reforms and these bills accomplish that goal with bipartisan support from 31 cosponsors,” she said. “I’ve talked with local newspaper publishers about concerns and some possible improvements to the legislation as it’s currently drafted, but that’s the beauty of the legislative process. When the bills come up in committee we listen to everyone and make changes that are necessary. I always discuss what we can do better and encourage everyone to express their thoughts and come testify before the whole committee.”