Numerous state statutes require that cities, townships, school districts, and counties publish advance notice of events and actions such as meetings, ordinances, assessments, proposed rezoning, and elections in traditional hard copy newspapers. Legislation offered in the Michigan House could put an end to that requirement.

House Bill 4183 would, over a nine-year period, end the requirement that local governments post public notices in newspapers and let the notices be posted online instead. Debate over the measure pits efficiency, the prospects of saving taxpayer dollars, and current reading habits against weakening of transparency.

The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, was reported out of the House Local Government Committee on March 11 and could soon be taken up by the full House. Similar legislation was introduced by Price last session and rumored to possibly move in lame duck — but it didn’t.

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Hard copy publication can be costly and with people increasingly getting most of their information over the Internet, a change to requiring only online posting could serve the public interest in disclosure while saving taxpayer dollars.

Opponents of House Bill 4183, however, argue that doing away with paper records could undermine the integrity and reliability of the reporting requirements. Online notices could be altered in ways that are virtually undetectable. Could the public be confident that, if a posted notice included inaccuracies, officials would openly admit the error? Or would they substitute a corrected version and cover up the fact that the notice had been posted incorrectly, thus possibly misinforming the public?

“We feel that our founding fathers knew what they were doing when they made public notice independent of the government,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager with the Michigan Press Association. “HB 4183 is a proposal that would create government control of what the public knows. Supporting the legislation means placing one’s trust in all future public officials, and bureaucrats to always do what is right by being transparent with the taxpayers.”

Aside from their public-spirited concern, newspapers also have an obvious financial interest in the fate of House Bill 4183. They stand to lose a reliable source of revenue if public notices no longer had to be published in newspapers.

Under the legislation, new detailed rules that apply to posting notices online would be phased in between 2016 and 2025. These rules cover matters such as the archiving and retention of hard copy printouts, intended to help protect the integrity of the public notice posting system. But government officials would be the ones in charge of maintaining those standards.

Whether the requirements that House Bill 4183 would establish are an adequate substitute for the independent scrutiny entities — in this case, newspapers — outside of government currently provides is the question that lawmakers must confront.

“Safeguards are available to provide security from hacking or other attempts to modify a notice posted online,” Price said. “While there is always a slim chance that a public notice could be published in error, these incidences would be extremely rare under any system. I trust our municipal clerks to fulfill their legal obligation to exercise due diligence when finalizing notices regardless of where they are published or posted.”

Editor's note: Rep. Price's comments were added after publication.

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See also:

Bill Would Bring Public Notice Rule Changes

Bill Would Allow Government to Post Legal Notices Online Instead of Newspapers