A bill that would require local jurisdictions to post certain notices online rather than printing them in local newspapers has left supporters and critics divided over how the measure could affect government transparency.
House Bill 1399, by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, would strike language from current law that requires municipalities and counties to publish notices related to delinquent taxes, elections, ordinances and financial statements in local newspapers. Under Cavenaugh's bill, jurisdictions would instead have to post these notices on government sites.
The bill, which was filed last week, would not affect other types of official notices, Cavenaugh said during an interview Monday. Other forms of public notice include legal notices, bids and foreclosure notices.
Supporters said the legislation is needed to modernize and increase public access to government notices. Proponents also claim the bill would save funds for cash-strapped local jurisdictions.
Opponents raised concerns about how the bill would reduce government transparency by leaving it up to local officials to post notices and dispersing government announcements across hundreds of websites.
The legislation mirrors similar bills and laws passed in other parts of the nation. Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have filed bills that would shift public notices from newspapers to government websites. Last year, Florida passed a law that permits government agencies to post legal notices on government websites rather than newspapers under certain conditions, according to Northwestern University's Local News Initiative.
WEHCO Media and the Arkansas Press Association are opposed to the bill. WEHCO owns the Texarkana Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, among other publications.
When asked why her bill was necessary, Cavenaugh said newspapers were an antiquated means of releasing public information.
"Technology is changing the way people get their news and their notices," she said. "A lot of people don't read printed newspapers anymore. I don't think we can get my kids to pick up a printed newspaper."
Cavenaugh noted the bill doesn't prevent jurisdictions from also printing notices in newspapers.
Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, pointed to a 2022 marketing study commissioned by her organization and a Nashville-based research firm that found 1.9 million active consumers, or 77% of Arkansas adults, read local print or digital newspapers. Of Arkansas adults, 84% said their most trusted source for public notices were newspapers and their websites, according to the findings of the study.
Both the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's website and the Arkansas Press Association's website feature notices that are free to all Arkansans, said Mark Lane, president of WEHCO Media's newspaper division, during an interview Monday. The Texarkana Gazette's website texarkanagazette.com features public notices as well.
The current version of Cavenaugh's bill lists 25 lawmakers as co-sponsors. A proposed amendment to the bill, which had yet to be adopted Monday, would remove two lawmakers and add one to the list.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he is co-sponsoring the legislation because it would save his county a significant amount of funds. Though he couldn't say exactly how much the county spent on notices covered by the bill when reached by phone Monday evening, he said county officials had asked him to support the measure.
Garland County Judge Darryl Mahoney also was wasn't immediately sure on Monday of the exact savings his county would receive. However, he pointed to one notice his jurisdiction had recently printed that cost $9,000 and noted the county had many posting requirements that added up quickly.
Every dollar saved in publishing costs would go toward public services, Mahoney said. He said that saved dollars that could go toward the upkeep of streets and roads or the posting of a bailiff in court.
Mahoney said the county attorney had raised concerns the jurisdiction might not be meeting legal criteria for the publication of notices because of the circulation and Sunday-only print schedule of The Sentinel-Record, the local paper of record.
Lane, who as president of WEHCO Newspapers, Inc. oversees the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Sentinel-Record, said Monday that the Hot Springs paper fulfills current law for the running of public notices. He noted that certain legal notices may have to run multiple times, but these printing requirements are often separated by weeks, not days.
By shifting tax delinquency notices to an online site, Wimberley said local jurisdictions would lose out on a revenue stream currently made available by printing the notices in papers. For these notices, state statutes allow a newspaper to charge $1.25 per name per insertion. County officials can add a 50-cent upcharge for compiling the list and charge the delinquent taxpayer.
"So in that instance, it's a money maker for the government because they make 50 cents per name," Wimberley said.
For other types of notices covered by the bill, Wimberley said the cost jurisdictions paid was necessary to ensure transparency. By removing independent newspapers from the publication of notices, Wimberley said the bill would make it difficult to verify if local governments were following requirements for posting.
Under the bill, a county quorum court shall designate by ordinance the website on which the county's online publications will be posted.
When authorized by law, a municipality may publish on a website designated by the governing body in an ordinance. Publications shall remain on the government websites for at least three years from the date on which they were posted.
The websites must be accessible to the public at no cost and require no log-in information.
"Who's going to be the watchdog in that case if it's the government self-policing," Wimberley said.
Wimberley noted the bill could lead to notices across the state being posted on hundreds of different websites, which could make it difficult for the public to find information. In some instances, she said, the legislation appeared to allow municipalities to run notices either on government websites or in newspapers, which could create confusion. In some parts of the state, viewing websites also could be difficult because of limited internet access.
"We just view, as a bill, that would be government self-policing and definitely an anti-transparency bill," Wimberley said.
Lane opposed the bill on similar grounds.
"To us, it all comes down to keeping government from being bigger government and for transparency," he said Friday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said that under current requirements government agencies could avoid transparency by not providing notices to local papers.
"Bad operators are going to be bad operators," said Hester, a Cave Springs Republican. "They should be held responsible when they act inappropriately."
Cecillea Pond-Mayo, chief information officer for the Arkansas House, said Monday that Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, was familiar with the bill but had not had an opportunity to study it yet.
Shepherd "is not taking a position at this time," Pond-Mayo said in an emailed statement.
Critics of the bill have raised concerns that by removing the requirement of posting certain notices in newspapers, the legislation will undercut a significant revenue stream for news outlets with already limited funds.
Sonny Elliott, general manager and managing editor of the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, said he opposed the bill because of the lack of government transparency it would introduce but also because of how it could impact budgets for local papers.
"These are the things we need to keep local newspapers alive and to prevent the continuation of news deserts throughout the state and the nation," Elliott said during an interview Friday.
Hester said while the role of local news is "critical to our society," he didn't believe it was the "government's role to subsidize them."
Cavenaugh said she understood notices represented significant revenue for many papers, but that "unfortunately technology is moving away from the printed newspaper."
Cavenaugh also said she felt an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter who spoke with her about the bill could be construed as having a "conflict of interest" given the paper had run advertisements in opposition to her legislation.
On Sunday, WEHCO newspapers ran full-page advertisements that included the text of the bill and urged readers to call their local legislators to ask them to oppose the measure.
The paper maintains a solid line between its news gathering and advertising operations, Lane said Monday. According to the paper's statement of core values, a journalist's role is "to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth."
The bill was referred to the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.
Temporary language in the bill indicates local jurisdictions would have to publish notices in their current newspaper monthly for a year directing readers to the government site.
The bill includes an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024.