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An open letter: to serve the public, keep public notices in newspapers

The Honorable Doug Libla

201 W. Capitol Ave., Room 226

Jefferson City, MO 65101

Dear Sen. Libla:

First of all, you have my gratitude for sponsoring and championing 2016 legislation to better fund MoDOT to help rebuild Missouri’s transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the proposed modest fuel-tax increase was not shared by the majority of the Legislature.

I can appreciate the unyielding political climate won’t allow increases or new taxes to generate revenue needed as the state faces a $460 million budget shortfall. But please do not place Jefferson City’s financial woes on Missouri’s newspaper – the majority of us are small weeklies.

Respectfully, I ask for the withdrawal of Senate Bill 47, which strips the requirement of placing public notices in county-based, paid-subscription newspapers, instead allowing government entities to post notices on a state-run Web site as an option.

I’d like to explain my reasons.

Whether S.B. 47 is intentionally designed to be a moneymaker for the state of Missouri, it certainly will be, if passed. Our twice-weekly newspaper in rural Ray County published approximately 320 legal notices in 2016. Applying the fee you set in your bill, the state of Missouri would generate a tidy some of money for state coffers from its 114 counties.

But most importantly, S.B. 47 takes away the press’ role as an independent broker of public notices to the people. The Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances, in which the press plays the role as government watchdog. Government has proven it fails at policing itself.

Newspapers – whether in print, in an electronic form, on a Web site or through social media platforms – engage readers on a daily basis. A government-run Web site does not.

Richmond News’ Web site (www.richmond-dailynews.com) posts its paid legal notices – accessible for all to see – 100 percent of the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – which is more than S.B. 47 requires in its language of a government-run site. If one feels compelled to bring the current law into 2017, amend it to require Missouri newspapers make paid legal notices available in print and on its Web sites.

Public notices can spotlight issues, meriting news stories to inform citizens on decisions that can adversely affect people. An official notice cast the light on a 345,000-volt power line project that claimed the land of individuals through eminent domain, which was the case in Ray County.

Additionally, S.B. 47 disregards the requirement of an affidavit, a legal court document, which authenticates each legal notice is published as promised. Web sites make that legal requirement difficult to fulfill.

Sen. Libla, likening newspapers to the “buggy whip” era is disingenuous. Butler County and Ray County have much in common – we are rural counties. Your hometown and mine are county seats, the largest towns in our counties, yet small by urban standards. Most of our towns have populations less than 1,000 people.  We don’t have four-lane highways or Google Fiber, which hinders connectivity. Many of our homes don’t have high-speed Internet – or a computer, for that matter. But we do have newspapers that have served our communities for more than a century.

Of course, Missouri Municipal League and its county counterpart, Missouri Association of Counties, are in support of this bill. These organizations understand government actions can be hid in plain sight on a bureaucratic Web site – not known for being user friendly. The proposed legislation would make the public troll the Secretary of State’s Web site to seek notices that may affect them. MML and MAC know the vast majority would not make that effort, nor have the time or capacity to do so.

One has to ask: Whom does this proposed legislation truly serve?

I do not believe it’s the people.

Sincerely,

JoEllen Black

Publisher, Richmond News

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