Did you ever wonder why government entities have to put a legal notice into the newspaper?
For one, it is a method of properly notifying interested parties that something is about to happen. For instance, the city advertises for asphalt bids for the parking lot behind city hall. Any interested contractor who would like the job can see the specifications of the bid and how to apply to potentially get the work.
This keeps things honest for the taxpayers in a few ways. It creates competition, and likely a lower job cost, than if the city officials just picked up the phone and called the first contractor who came to mind. It also helps resolve any real or perceived conflicts of interest. Let’s say the mayor’s brother just so happens to own an asphalt business. You can see why giving everyone a fair chance to submit a bid is even more important in that circumstance.
Another important reason for newspapers to be the platform by which the government gives notice is the newspaper is a disinterested, neutral party. Let’s say the Ohio Department of Transportation wants to take some property by eminent domain to widen a road or the county prosecutor’s office decides to file to take someone’s property for unpaid taxes. ODOT putting a blurb on its website or the prosecutor post a notice on his does not do the job. You’d have to be looking at their websites on a routine basis to catch that the notice was even posted and then there is a question of where on the website is the notice? Is it easily visible or do you have to know what you’re looking for to even find it? The government, in both of these examples, is the party doing the taking. They are not neutral nor are they disinterested in the outcome. Would there be a temptation to bury notices they did not want to attract attention to?
Thankfully we currently don’t have to worry about such questions because Ohio public bodies are still required to give notice of such activities in newspapers – to be found all in the same place, every time and to be seen not just by people who are anticipating the notice but to those passively reading and who may not have known to be looking out for it.
I like to equate it to the difference between online shopping and going to the mall or car dealership in person. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, a search engine based system is a time saver. But what about the time you walked on to a car lot and found a great new ride because a vehicle you wouldn’t have specifically thought you were looking for caught your eye? Or that new chair for your living room?
There is value in not making people have to constantly search for this information – which if it isn’t in the local paper could appear on one of any dozens of government websites.
It’s more fair to both parties involved. It just keeps things cleaner. It prevents people with bad motives from taking shortcuts and manipulating the outcome. It also makes it harder for people to allege favoritism when everything was done out in the open by a third party who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.
It can bring more bidders and keep competition lively. This could fetch a higher price for the county or bank for a property or could result in a lower project cost for a road repair.
Public notices have been running in newspapers since the first editions were printed on our shores. There is just no comparable alternative that provides as much fairness, visibility or creates such a permanent record that’s archivable and searchable by everyone. Unless someone comes up with one, there is no good reason to take this important government watchdog role away from newspapers.
The writer is the Ohio News Media Association president and executive director.