Tallahassee fog — You can barely see the Sunshine
A bid to “save money” at the expense of government transparency is being proffered yet again in Tallahassee in the hope it will slip by a gullible or unwary public.
Senate Bill 1340, a 51-page regurgitation of last year’s perennial effort, would replace longstanding Public Notices advertising requirements with a “public website notification option at government discretion.” Its companion bill is House Bill 7. Both are still in committee.
Passage would mean that things like meeting notices, zoning changes and regulatory ordinances would appear only on a website operated by the government body required to notify the public about the actions proposed.
So would all tax-related notices for things like budget proposals, tax hikes, government “fees,” assessment bumps and more.
Proponents say this will save publication costs.
So if it’s cheaper, why is it not then better?
Property owners in near-by Cape Coral who were affected by its citywide comprehensive plan overhaul last year learned full well.
None of the multitude of changes had to be individually advertised in print as virtually all public notices currently must be: Due to scope of the projet, the city got to use a statutory exemption.
Numerous property owners and nearby residents only became aware of major changes in zoning or land use density through word-of-mouth from others who happened to have attended a routine planning meeting or from subsequent media accounts.
The outrage was immediate — and vocal — from residential property owners who learned that that big vacant lot across the street could now be developed into a shopping center or a multi-building apartment complex.
The exception that pre-empted the requirement for the advertising of the individual changes — even the most major ones — is typical of the Tallahassee fog produced annually to cloud Government in the Sunshine protections.
Since the state Senate and House are recycling legislation that failed last year despite support from our own local delegation, let us reiterate the arguments we made against:
The public tends not to delve into the minutiae on government websites where most such things are likely to be of little interest or deeply buried. What does garner attention is that same affect-your-property or pocketbook proposal in a go-to information source that you read regularly.
For the vast majority, that source is still a local newspaper.
According to a survey conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research in 2019, 83 percent of Floridians say that state and local governments should be required to publish public notices in the newspaper on a regular basis. Sixty-eight percent say they would not visit city or county websites to search for public notices.
It’s simply much easier to find those notices in the same place that has the news story about that property tax rate increase, proposed zoning change or just 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, are required to post public notices online. Newspapers which meet the criteria to accept legal ads 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 2019 states that more than a million Floridians — 5.7 percent — still 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 15 percent of residents over 65, which a Mason Dixon Polling & Research demographics breakdown shows do not have Internet access. The percent of residents age 50 and older who lack internet acess is 10 percent.
– 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 15 percent of individuals in this demographic also do not have Internet access.
– In the low income demographic, the number who do not have access is 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 our sister publication, the Cape Coral 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.
We also believe there should be third party neutrality and see no reason why the public should be denied this safety net.
As the Florida Press Association’s public advocacy arm so aptly points out, under the legislation proposed, government websites will not be required to provide legal affidavits, written proof of publication or a “secure and certifiable paper trail,” as newspapers publishing public notices currently must do. These are things that mitigate the possibility for abuse, including changing or manipulating posting times to stifle debate.
For those who may be willing to trade cost savings for access?
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.
The Senate’s own bill analysis, meanwhile, points out that any cost savings to government entities — i.e. the taxpayers — is “indeterminate.” While it may reduce the publication costs for the notices, those costs often are passed on to those necessitating or benefitting from the notices. In those cases, notice publication is not “taxpayer funded.”
As we urge every year — and as we will ad nauseum every time this keep-you-in-the-dark legislation comes back to the table — protect your right to know and your pocketbook. Urge our legislative representatives to reject the proposal to make us pay for opaque governance.
And no, it’s not too early to make your voice heard.
Similar legislation eventually passed in the House last year where members of the Lee County delegation — Reps Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, District 77; Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, District 79 and Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, District 76 — each voted “Yes.”
Don’t let this dog in the House — or the Senate.
* Rep. Spencer Roach-District 79
1401 The Capitol
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300
3436 Marinatown Lane, Suite 6
North Fort Myers, FL 33903
– Citizen editorial