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Legal notices legislation clouds public notification

April 24, 2019
Pine Island Eagle

Like a slick counterfeit twenty, a proposal to "save money" at the expense of government transparency is being proffered again in Tallahassee in the hope it will slip by a gullible or unwary public.

House Bill HB 1235, a 45-page meander, would replace longstanding Public Notices advertising requirements with a "public website" notification option at government discretion.

The bill passed the House 68-44 on third reading Wednesday. Members of the Lee County delegation, Reps Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, District 77; Spenser Roach, R-North Fort Myers, District 79; and Pine Island's rep, Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, District 76, each voted "Yes."

The Senate companion bill has 1676 was introduced March 13 with no additional action as of Friday, April 19.

Thank goodness.

Passage would mean that things like meeting notices, land use and zoning changes, tax-related actions and pretty much every other kind of notice to the public, would appear only on a website operated by the government body required to notify the public about any action proposed.

The problem is, the public tends not to delve into the minutiae on government websites where such things are likely to be of little interest - unless it's a proposal that has already caught your eye in a go-to information source because it affects your property or your pocketbook.

For the vast majority, that source is still a local newspaper.

Love "the media," or hate those purveyors of "fake news," the bottom line is print dinosaurs remain the primary source of information for most residents, for most taxpayers.

Consider:

According to a survey conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research in 2017, 83 percent of Floridians say that state and local governments should be required to publish public notices in the newspaper on a regular basis.

That's not only the status quo, it's a requirement embedded in state right-to-know legislation.

According to the same Mason Dixon Polling & Research study, 82 percent of Floridians say they would not visit city or county websites to look for public notices.

It's simply much easier to find those notices in the same place that has the news story about that millage rate increase, proposed zoning change or a favorite feature.

And if you believe readership is moving - or has already moved - online?

Print media, whose related sites consistently have much higher readership than government websites, is required to post public notices online. Newspapers which meet the criteria to accept legal ads, like our sister publication, the Cape Coral Breeze, are also required to post them to a statewide public notices site, floridapublicnotices.com .

But as good as the online publishing requirements for newspapers are, even they are not the be-all, end-all for public notices and other legal ads.

A Nielsen Scarborough report from 2018 states that more than 1.2 million Floridians - 7.5 percent - do not have Internet access.

Some are at particular risk:

- In a state known as a retirement mecca, Web-only notices would deny access to meeting and other legal notices to 19 percent - or nearly 1 of every 5 - residents over 65, which a Mason Dixon Polling & Research demographics breakdown shows do not have Internet access.

- In a state known for its growing diversity, Web-only notices would deny access to meeting and other legal notices to minority residents as an estimated 17 percent of residents in this demographic also do not have Internet access.

- In the low income demographic, the number who do not have access is also 17 percent.

For the rest of us, notices would no longer be available with our morning coffee or after-work respite. Not only would we have to navigate online sites, we would have to wend our way through multiple sites as each agency would have the ability to post to their own address. (Currently, most newspapers, including The Breeze, provide one-stop shopping for all published legal ads at floridapublicnotices.com for those who choose to read online.)

If you think newspapers have an agenda here, we do. That agenda is two fold:

We freely admit legal advertising is a revenue source for the Breeze Newspapers. If legal ads go away, struggling newspapers will take another hit but we will do what we have done thus far: find alternative revenue sources and adjust our business models, routine private enterprise adaptations.

The second part of that agenda is our primary reason in opposition to this bad, here-it-is-again legislation. We, like virtually every newspaper across the state, avow a strong commitment to Government in the Sunshine - open meetings, access to public records, and ease in attaining both.

Taxpayers have a right - an absolute right - to know when its elected and appointed boards are meeting, when they are planning changes that affect our property values and use of the land that we own, and when they are considering enactments affecting our pocketbooks.

We firmly believe that information should be easily accessible and readily available where the public is used to reading it.

For those who may be willing to trade cost savings for access, we say show us the money.

As a look at burgeoning governmental budgets, so aptly illustrate, public employees and public departments do not come cheap. There is no guarantee that this initiative will not convert private sector jobs into public sector positions with the resulting cost to be borne by the taxpayers multiple times over multiple agencies.

Florida TaxWatch, in fact, has opposed this type of legislation over the years for many of the same reasons stated above.

This year, the watchdog group is opposing legislation that would eliminate required print advertising for "Notice of Proposed Tax Increase" notifications. These notifications detail the size of the tax increase over the "roll back rate" - the rate at which taxing authorities would receive the same amount of revenue, excluding money from new construction. The notices also provide the time and place of the public budget hearing to adopt the proposed budget and tax rate.

Protect your right to know - and your pocketbook. Urge our state Senate representatives to again reject the proposal to make us pay for opaque governance, should these latest bills come to a vote. For Pine Islanders that is Lizbeth Benacquisto, District 27.

She can be reached at:

Capitol Office:

400 Senate Office Building

404 South Monroe Street

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100

District Office:

Suite 401

2000 Main Street

Fort Myers, FL 33901

Phone: (239) 338-2570

email: benacquisto.lizbeth@flsenate.gov

And please, let Rep. Rodrigues know how unhappy you are with his cloud-the-Sunshine vote last week. It's not your interests he was protecting.

n Ray Rodrigues, District 76

Capitol Office

422 The Capitol

402 South Monroe Street

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

(850) 717-5076

District Office:

Suite 218

17595 South Tamiami Trail

Fort Myers, FL 33908-4570

(239) 433-6501

 
 

 

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