In a divided vote Friday, the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee advanced a proposal to relieve municipalities of a longstanding obligation to publish legal notices in local newspapers.
Connecticut law requires towns and cities to notify residents of government events like ordinance changes or town meetings through legal notices published in locally circulated newspapers.
The bill that moved out of the Planning and Development Committee would permit towns to publish the notices on their municipal websites instead. It’s a change long sought by municipal government associations, who argue that the publication fees are too expensive and that residents look to the internet for local updates.
Newspapers, which receive significant revenue from notice publication, oppose the change on the grounds that it would reduce government accountability by removing the responsibility from an independent third party.
A condensed version of that debate played out Friday during a largely virtual meeting of the legislative committee with cognizance over local government.
“This really is a burden on our towns,” Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, an Avon Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said. As a former journalist, she said she felt torn on the issue. “We also have to figure out a way that is cost effective because we can not have a town spending $100,000 a year just on legal notices, not when we are short on funding for education and for town services.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-East Granby, said years of debate over the issue had not convinced her that the change was a good idea.
“We still have people that do not access the Internet: sometimes the elderly and it’s just sometimes people that don’t have the time to cruise through internet sites,” Zawistowski said. “The ideal solution would be — and I believe some towns are doing this right now — is to publish a summary or a quick reference as to what the item is in the legal notice and say the complete legal notice is on your website.”
She was one of several members who said they wanted to see some sort of compromise not currently described in the bill. While Zawistowski voted against the measure, others on the fence voted in favor. Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven, voted to pass the proposal despite “going back and forth” on the issue.
“I have a fierce desire to uphold the need for transparency in our government and I worry about … the possibility that it could be abused,” Zullo said. “We like to think that everybody is a good actor but unfortunately once and awhile there’s a bad apple.”
The bill moved out of committee Friday less than a month after the state’s appeals court affirmed a ruling that Fenwick, a borough of Old Saybrook, had not satisfied its legal notice requirement when it published a notice in the Middletown Press, which had no circulation in the town.
In the decision, the appeals court remarked that the newspaper industry had changed since the legal notice requirement was enacted and speculated that the widespread availability of Internet access may justify moving notices online.
“Nonetheless, it is within the province of the legislature, and not this court, to make such determinations and to amend [the statute] if it deems that such changes are necessary or warranted,” the decision read. “This court must apply the statute as it is written.”