As chair of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, I have the job of moving multiple areas of legislation dealing with issues that affect our communities. Among those issues this year is legislation that addresses newspaper advertisements and notices, and how such notices are to be made public and the frequency with which they must appear.
Specifically, should public notices no longer be required to be posted on the traditional printed page? Further, should public notices now only appear on the Internet? And who should control the dissemination and archiving of those notices — government or the private sector?
Last week my committee heard its first bill on this subject when Sen. Ronda Storms presented Senate Bill 2292, titled "Advertisements & Notices by Governmental Entities," which would allow local governments to place legally required public notices on a government-sponsored Web site, as opposed to printing them in local newspapers. The measure was temporarily passed (or postponed).
My recommendation for this bill and six other similar bills moving in the Legislature this year is to hold all legislation dealing with public notice requirements until an interim study may be conducted this summer. Several factors must be addressed if we are to remain a "government in the sunshine" in providing transparency and accessibility to public information.
Floridians have a right to know how local, state and federal entities are spending their hard-earned tax dollars, as well as a right to know about the governmental decisions that affect their daily lives. Independent public notice and the right to due process of law are among our most important checks and balances.
Public notices of government actions originated in the 17th century. Shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the first Congress codified public notices by requiring the secretary of state to publish all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes in at least three publicly available newspapers.
Examples today of public notice include information on community changes, fraud prevention and debt collection, and monitoring government transactions. The printed page has served as the trusted source for community information, and in particular, the publishing of notices of government action.
I have always believed in the principle that we, as citizens, must be given the opportunity to monitor and participate in our government. I am deeply concerned that, if we place this information solely on a government-sponsored Web site, no measure will be in place to prevent the shutdown of electronic media access for convenience sake or when controversial hearings and issues arise.
Media suppression and censorship have long been a source of controversy in countries around the globe. Even if a person disagrees with media coverage and/or editorial comments (which I often do), it is a small sacrifice considering the possible alternative — government-controlled and biased media and news.
Recent research shows that close to 60 percent of Florida seniors do not have access to the Internet. In addition, an average of 40 percent of all Hispanics and African Americans do not use the Internet at all.
So it is reasonable — and right — to continue to provide a printed record for those without access to the Internet, as well as an electronic record for those who have access. To replace one system of public notice with another would deny millions the opportunity to keep up with important information.
Combining Florida’s tradition of open government for public inspection with new technologies and traditional newspaper printing of public notices is just common sense.
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, serves District 21, which includes most of Manatee County and parts of Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto and Lee counties. E-mail: bennett. firstname.lastname@example.org