Municipal leaders in Connecticut resumed on Friday a near-annual push to repeal a long-standing requirement that they publish legal notices in local newspapers and instead allow such notifications to be made on municipal websites.
The state requires towns and cities to give residents notice of events like town meetings, referenda, and ordinance changes through ads in locally circulated publications. Seeking to reduce their expenses, towns have repeatedly petitioned the legislature to relieve them of the requirement, arguing that residents increasingly seek the information online.
During a Friday hearing of the Planning and Development Committee, Hamden Mayor Lauren Garrett told the panel that her town spent roughly $100,000 per year on publishing notices in a local newspaper. The town also posts the information on its website, she said.
“We want people to be able to see our notices regardless so we do publish them already on our website,” Garrett said. “We are providing the information already. I’m just requesting the ability for us to save some money and not have to advertise with the newspapers.”
The recurring proposal has long been opposed by the state’s newspapers, which receive revenue from the notices and frame the issue in terms of transparency and accountability. On Friday, Mike DeLuca, group publisher and president of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, argued that it was important that the notices be published by an independent entity.
“While we all know the digital world is susceptible to hacking and rife with disinformation, there can be no manipulation to a permanently archived print record,” DeLuca said. “Placing public notices in newspapers and newspaper websites also helps ensure that the notices are seen by a cross section of the public.”
Other town representatives pointed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s temporary suspension of the requirement via executive order during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In written testimony, Besty Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, argued that the shift to online publication did not cause any “issues or concerns” in local communities.
“It’s time to eliminate the costly legal notices mandate and bring the publication of legal notices into the 21st century,” Gara wrote.
However, Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said those costs funded transparency in local government through an independent record.
“It’s a service that’s provided to towns and cities,” VanDeHoef said. “Relying on online self-published notice is not transparent nor independent and we are all aware of issues throughout Connecticut and across the country where a lack of transparency has led to problems.”
Lawmakers on the committee expressed interest in finding a middle ground. Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, an Avon Democrat who co-chairs the panel, worried about the shrinking of newspapers, which she said were critically important. But she argued that the requirement’s current costs to municipalities were too high.
“As we’ve heard today, there has to be some sort of compromise because the towns can only do so much and when you hear from a town that they’ve spent $100,000 in a year– that’s exorbitant,” she said.
During her testimony, Garrett suggested amending the proposal to require that towns post only a limited notice in a newspaper, while directing readers back to a full notification to be published on a municipal website.
DeLuca, who also serves as president of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said newspapers wanted to be allies to their communities when it came to public notices and were open to hearing compromises.
“I’m wide open to any other suggestions to keep the spirit of this going but to also be able to hold account the decisions and the things that are happening in the communities for the sake of the people who live there,” DeLuca said.