Municipal governments are trying again to reduce the amount of information towns must pay to print in newspapers, this year with the support of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey.
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.
In the months leading up to this session, Sharkey backed recommendations crafted by legislative group he commissioned to encourage regional cooperation and reduce burdens on towns. The group recommended passing the changes towns have requested to their requirements to publish the notices.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is asking the state to allow towns to push summaries of the traditional notices with instructions for how to obtain the full document on the town’s website. The idea is to reduce the amount of newspaper space towns must purchase, while preserving the notification for newspaper readers.
“It seems like a reasonable compromise,” Sharkey said Friday. “Without imposing a huge cost on cities and towns.”
During a public hearing last week Leo Paul, first selectman of Litchfield, told lawmakers that his town, a small municipality with about 8,500 residents, has had to budget around $16,000 a year for newspaper notification in each of the last two years. He called it “a rather costly venture.”
“Local governments spend millions of dollars every year publishing lengthy documents in their entirety in local publications. In the 21st Century, the quickest, most transparent and cost effective way to get information to the most amount of residents is via the internet,” Paul said.
Sharkey said he believes it is critical that Connecticut residents are kept informed of what’s happening in their local governments, but said the public is looking increasingly toward the internet for updates.
“The way the public gets information on what’s going on in the community is changing,” he said.
Although the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association acknowledges the public notices are a significant revenue stream for the state’s financially struggling newspapers, the group has framed the debate over the years in terms of government transparency.
Chris VanDeHoef, the group’s executive director, argued against the bill in written testimony presented to the Government Administration and Elections Committee last week.
“Our society is founded on the premise that the public has access to its government and what that government is engaged in,” he said. “….We feel that public notices provide this information in an unadulterated and verified manner. A manner that the internet can not guarantee.”
During last year’s legislative session, daily newspapers throughout the state ran a series of full-page advertisements likening the proposal to an April Fool’s joke.
However, Sharkey said the current proposal preserves public access to documents without eliminating the notifications from the pages of newspapers altogether.
“If the issue is not about revenue to newspapers and is about maintaining the public’s right to know, I think the M.O.R.E. [Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies] commission recommendation accomplishes the latter,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the House speaker’s support will be enough to push the perennial issue over the legislative finish line during this year’s session. A spokesman for Senate President Donald Williams said supporters of the proposal will need to prove that it will not impact the ability of the public to easily obtain important information. He also said Williams has yet to discuss the issue with other Senate Democrats.
On Friday, Sharkey said he had not polled support for the proposal in his chamber either.
“I don’t know for sure if we’ll have the votes to get something done this year. If there’s not enough support we’ll maybe wait and try again next year,” he said.