When it comes to legal notices, Maine has a system that has worked for decades. Without compelling evidence that change is needed, lawmakers shouldn’t throw out this system in favor of untried methods.
Several bills to change legal notice requirements have been submitted to the Legislature. All say they aim to save money.
This is an important consideration, but it doesn’t eliminate the government’s need to keep the public informed of what it is doing. Legal notices, which are now published in general circulation newspapers, are one way the government does this.
The bills, two of which have yet to be written, would move the distribution of these notices to the Internet. This is appealing on its face, but it has several problems.
A fundamental one is that it changes the dynamic of government from one of reaching out to citizens to one of making citizens search for information.
As University of Maine journalism professor Shannon Martin wrote in a 2007 column, a public notice is a “push” communication. “We have decided that some kinds of government information are so important, affect citizens so immediately, that we should not be required to seek the information, but instead it should be brought to our attention,” she wrote. Further, she said, newspapers — which have an obvious conflict of interest in this debate, even if the advertising revenues it affects are a small fraction of any newspaper’s total — are independent of government, serving as a sort of independent witness to government action.
This isn’t an academic point. Communities have been forced to delay projects or reschedule votes because the public wasn’t given adequate advance notice of meetings and upcoming decisions. If such information is harder to access, such complaints — and even lawsuits — will increase.
Simply put, public notices are an important function of government and publishing them is a service newspapers historically have provided to government efficiently and at reasonable cost.
Moving these notices to papers sent through the mail, as LD 392 proposes, would just cause confusion. The public knows such notices appear in general circulation papers, so changing to a different print publication is a change without a public benefit.
Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, is the sponsor of LD 392 and has proposed changes to legal notice requirements in the past. She raises the valid point that there are currently no data on the effectiveness of public notices published in newspapers. Finding out they were effective by eliminating them is not the solution.
Further, changing to new, untested delivery systems — whether in print or online — will undoubtedly result in higher costs as things go wrong and complaints mount.
This should not be acceptable to the public or the Legislature.