Late last year, the Nebraska Board of Parole published a notice in newspapers across Nebraska, including the Washington County Enterprise, that it would no longer publish notice of parole board public hearings in newspapers, effective Jan. 1.
Instead, the board planned to provide public notice of upcoming parole hearings on its website.
The motivation was likely supposed efficiency and cost savings, as the board publishes notice of hearings specific to each county in many county newspapers in Nebraska.
However, staff at the Enterprise and the Cedar County News in Hartington took notice, contacting the Nebraska Press Association Executive Director Allen Beermann, who urged the board to reconsider. Thankfully, it did. Continuing to publish these notices in newspapers is good public policy. It keeps victims and the public informed.
This example of a government agency attempting to end the practice of publishing notices in newspapers is, unfortunately, not all too uncommon.
One such example is in Indiana, where the Air Quality Division of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management proposed moving notices to its website, which the Environmental Rules Board approved despite more than 600 comments opposing the plan and only four in favor of it. This is just one of dozens of examples across the country we could cite of government agencies trying to side step this legal requirement.
Each state has laws requiring the publication of public notices — announcements that give residents information about government-related activities. Notices generally range from public budgets and hearings, to government contracts open for bidding, to liquor licenses, rezonings and various other issues.
In the last year, Enterprise Media Group has highlighted its public notices with larger headlines in each issue of its Washington County Pilot-Tribune, Enterprise and the Arlington Citizen to draw readers attention to their significance. This is not required by any statute, but we feel these notices are important, and anything we can do to improve government transparency is good for our community.
While publishing notices on websites may appear to be efficient for government agencies, it lacks transparency as very few, if any, government websites have nearly as many readers as newspapers. Many newspapers, including the Enterprise, also publish notices on their own websites, plus, in addition all legal notices for the state of Nebraska are available online by community, newspaper or search at nepublicnotices.com.
To put government agencies in charge of publishing their own notices, is somewhat like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Who will be watching them to make sure all public notice statutes are met? We’re very pleased that no city or county government agency in Washington County have
made any proposals in the last several years to move any of their required notices from print to online. It appears our local leaders also understand the importance of these notices.
Public notices in newspapers are part of the “three-legged stool of government accountability,” which help inform the public on activities by the government and other public entities. While it's a practice that has been around since the “beginning of the Republic,” it's an important one that needs to remain.