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Keep public notices accessible to all

By Staff | Mar 24, 2021

Are there any words more terrifying to us taxpayers than Ronald Reagan’s famously shared “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”?

It always amuses us — and not in a good way — when self-proclaimed fiscally conservative, small government, pro-business politicians trot out costly, duplicative government proposals that only would benefit two entities: government and those elected to its bodies.

Case in point is a perennial favorite among politicos here in Florida who would like nothing better than to do an end run around the pesky state constitutional mandate that requires all meetings at which official acts are to be taken, or the public’s business is to be discussed or transacted, to be publicly noticed.

As current law stands, that means printed in a local newspaper like The Breeze, posted to the paper’s website, and then posted again to FloridaPublicNotices.com, a statewide site shared by all newspapers that publish legal notices.

It’s a one-price, three-pronged approach designed to make sure virtually every resident, every business, has the ability to be informed on all matters that have the potential to make a major impact on their home, their business or their wallets.

Yet proposed legislation is again wading its way through the legislative process in Tallahassee that would make now-easy access to notices of everything from meetings, zoning changes and regulatory ordinances to budget proposals, tax hikes, government “fees” and assessment bumps harder to find.

Much harder.

The first is House Bill 35. Brought forth this year by Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican from Palm Bay, it’s pretty much a rehash of previous legal notices proposals. It would allow local governments to publish such notices “on publicly accessible websites” only; i.e. individual government websites.

The second, SB 402, proposed as a companion to HB 35 and then heavily amended by Southwest Florida’s newly elected senator, Ray Rodrigues, is a much more complicated proposal.

SB 402, Public Notice and Voting Rights Restoration Database, would allow legal notifications to be published on a wholly new and yet-to-be-developed fee-based website to be established by the Florida Supreme Court.

And instead of requiring newspapers to verify timely publication via printed “tear sheets,” publication on this new government website would constitute proof of publication, unless otherwise determined by a court.

The benefit, we assume — our newly elected District 27 rep did not return repeat requests for clarification — is that money raised from this new public notices website would not only pay for its creation and operations but that of a second and wholly unrelated one.

Umm, OK, but we — and the senate bill — both digress.

The constitutional mandate for public notices for all things that constitute the public’s business may be summed up with one word: Public.

Public notice that is easy and readily available, that puts information into the hands of those who want it, those who need it without exclusion.

Newspaper print publication continues to play a significant role here.

As we all painfully learned when our schools were closed and “distance learning” was required; when working remotely and Zoom meetings prevailed, is that many– too many — individuals lack internet access.

Not only did we find that this to be true in coastal Lee, but it is especially so in more rural counties throughout the state.

Print publication provides public notice access to those residents and taxpayers.

And for those who have internet? Those who “don’t read newspapers anymore,” as some politicians like to assert?

Newspaper website traffic far, far exceeds that of government websites.

Meanwhile, the existing statewide public notices site to which all papers post public and legal notices, FloridaPublicNotices.com, is a trusted one-stop shop for businesses with interests that cross Florida’s various — and numerous — governmental boundaries.

As the Associated Industries of Florida points out in a guest opinion on this page, requiring the monitoring of multiple sites is far from business friendly.

Wednesday, March 24, is Public Notices Day. It’s theme is “Public Notices Need to be Noticed.” It’s message is “It’s Your Right To Know.”

We agree. We strongly agree.

If you do as well, we urge you to contact Southwest Florida’s representatives and tell them to reject their annual attempt to make things harder for you to stay informed.

Reach Sen. Rodrigues at rodrigues.ray.web@flsenate.gov. Reach Rep. Adam Botana, District 76, at Adam.botana@myfloridahouse.gov.

Contacts for the entire Lee County Legislative Delegation, should you feel so inclined, may be found at www.leedelegation.com/state-legislators.html.

Urge them — as we urge them — to again reject this effort to hamper your right to know.