Christine Stuart photo
Legal notice in a 2004 Journal Inquirer (Christine Stuart photo)

Town governments are hoping a renewed focus on municipal mandate relief will see the passage of long-sought changes to expensive legal notice publishing requirements.

For years, towns have pushed to change the state law requiring them to post legal notices in local daily newspapers, but the legislation has always failed to pass the General Assembly. Current law requires towns to advertise in their local newspaper to advise residents of things like town meetings, referenda, and ordinance changes.

This year, the state’s municipal lobby has been outspoken in opposing some of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed changes to municipal funding formulas. Because of those proposals, legislation that relieves towns of the legal notice requirement may have legs.

Jim Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said towns are hopeful that strong support for municipal mandate relief among lawmakers will help change publishing requirements this year and give towns the ability to reduce the amount to space they must buy in newspapers to post legal notices.

“With the backdrop of the governor’s budget proposal, I think people know how tough things are for municipalities,” he said.

This year, lawmakers seem supportive of legislation giving towns the ability to publish abbreviated notices in newspapers with directions for residents to follow up online for further information. Bills to that effect have passed out of two legislative committees with strong support on both sides of the aisle.

But efforts to shift legal notices online faces opposition from the state’s daily newspapers, who publish the notices for a fee, which provides them with a significant revenue stream.

Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said he understands that towns are looking for places to trim their budgets. But he said the publication of legal notices is a matter of open government and transparency.

With a truncated advertisement appearing in print, towns would likely shift the majority of each public notice onto their websites. And whereas a notice becomes a matter of public record once it is printed in a newspaper, VanDeHoef said entries on government websites are open to tampering, alteration, or even publication after the legal deadline.

“The [town’s] ability to change something is never-ending,” he said. “We understand that towns and cities need to find every dollar they can, but you simply can’t use open government as a place to cut.”

On Monday, the newspaper association will begin running full-page advertisements titled “This is no April Fool’s joke,” opposing the legislation in all 16 of the state’s daily newspapers. VanDeHoef said they will continue running different versions of the ad three times a week until May.

“The simple fact is, not everyone in Connecticut has access to the Internet. People are curious about what it is their government is doing and spending money on. Why are we making it harder for them to get that information?” he said.

The argument has been successful in the past. In 2011, the General Administration and Elections effectively killed similar legislation over concerns about universal Internet access. But GAE, the legislature’s open government committee, is one of the panels which have approved the legislation this year. This time it passed with unanimous support.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, called the abbreviated notices in newspapers a “fair balance” between open information and reducing costs to towns. The committee’s co-chairman Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, agreed.

“I think we’ve all heard from a lot from the towns about trying to reduce some of the mandates that are costly to them. I would say this this is one small step in the right direction,” he said.

Finley called the committee’s endorsement of the bill “a good seal of approval that this is not an anti-transparency proposal.” He said there has been a shift in where people are looking to stay informed.

“The way of the world is moving is toward people getting their information online,” he said.

Finely said another shift this year is an openness to the proposal on the part of legislative leadership.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said Wednesday that he is open to looking at the legislation and has instructed his municipal efficiency commission to explore the issue as well.

Sharkey said he was sympathetic to the concerns of local newspapers, but said making sure the state’s residents stay informed in the most cost-efficient way possible trumps those concerns.

“We have to make sure we’re not burdening taxpayers with unnecessary costs,” he said. “There’s no question [newspapers] generate revenue from it, but I have to put the interests of taxpayers and the need to provide adequate notice ahead of revenue to newspapers.”

Sharkey said that if towns feel they can provide adequate notice to residents in cheaper ways, he is open to considering them. But he said it’s important it does not come at the expense of an informed public.

He said he wanted to make sure the abbreviated notices still include enough information that residents are kept up-to-date on their municipal governments.

“If you’re simply saying ‘There’s going to be a hearing on Tuesday, go to this website and see what it’s about,’ I’m not sure that’s adequate information,” he said.

In addition to the General Administration and Elections Committee, the legislation has been approved by the Planning and Development Committee, which held a public hearing on the issue in February.