Lawmakers consider eliminating requirement to publish public notices in newspapers

Indiana lawmakers are considering removing the requirement for local government public notices to be published in newspapers.

House Bill 1498 would allow local governments and other public bodies, such as school boards, airport authorities and local commissions, to publish legal notices online instead of in local newspapers, which is currently required by law.

These notices typically include information about upcoming public meetings, actions a public body is considering taking or budgetary information that is required to be publicized.

Under the bill, the notices could be published on the government entity’s own website, or if one does not exist, it could be on the county government website. For example, if a township didn’t have a website, it could use the website of the county it is within.

The public would have to be able to access the website at all times, and the website would have to be registered with the Indiana Office of Technology.

Notices would be required to be posted online for at least 90 days after the last required posting date, and any entity choosing to publish online instead of in print would be required to maintain an archive of notices and proof of publication documents.

Local government and school system officials are supportive of the bill, saying it would give them another option for publishing required notices, but the media industry opposes the measure.

The bill’s author, Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart, said the bill would not prevent any government entity from continuing to publish notices in newspapers, but he believes it’s time to tweak the law to recognize that many people now get their information online.

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel with the Hoosier State Press Association, said he has several concerns with the bill, including the lack of internet availability in some parts of the state and the removal of an independent third party in the publication process.

And he said it’d be unfair to expect members of the public to have to regularly visit multiple government websites to check public notices.

“That’s not logical,” Key said.

Beverly Joyce, publisher of The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, said newspapers are “not getting rich on public notices,” but she believes publishing them is important.

“We provide a service to our readers,” Joyce said. “We provide transparency.”

Ryan Hoff, general counsel and director of government relations with the Association of Indiana Counties, urged lawmakers to support the bill and described the measure as “fiscal efficiency.”

But Trisha Johnson, publisher of the Goshen News, disputed the belief that the measure would save cities and towns money, because it would cost them to maintain the records. Plus, she said, it’s a tiny portion of local government budgets.

For example, Johnson said Elkhart County spent $20,000 to publish legal notices in the Goshen News last year, but that amount only represents 0.02% of the county’s budget.

Miller said he knows the language is not perfect and it might need to be reviewed even after becoming law.

The legislation would take effect June 30, 2022, and would expire July 1, 2023. The legislative council would be required to prepare legislation for the 2022 session that would address any changes that would need to be made.

Key said he talked to legislative leaders prior to the session about bringing forward a proposal for the 2022 session that would be comprehensive and consider all the unintended consequences. He encouraged lawmakers to table the discussion until then.

The House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee approved the bill 10-3 on Tuesday.

A similar bill is also being considered in the Senate. For any public notice that is required to be published two times or more, Senate Bill 332 would require the government agency to publish the first notice in a newspaper but the second (and any other subsequent notices) could be published online only.

The Senate Local Government Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill, authored by state Sen. James Buck, R-Logansport, on Thursday.

In 2019, state lawmakers considered a bill that would have eliminated the requirement for sheriff’s sale of foreclosed properties to be published in newspapers, but the measure died in the Senate.

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