Independent Public Notices Key To Government Transparency

By Frank Gibson,

TPA Public Policy Director

Editor’s note: it’s Public Notice Week Jan. 18-24—time to remind citizens of the value of Public Notices in representative democratic government.

When governments create or authorize state and local agencies to create new programs, they typically require some measure of public disclosure as a form of public oversight and to make agencies accountable.

As far back as 1789, during the first American Congress, that accountability has come in the form of public notices in independently-published newspapers. Actions of the congress were ordered to be published in three separate newspapers to ensure wide circulation.

The concept eventually extended to commerce as a way to protect property interest, provide due process and consumer protection from certain business entities – foreclosures, bankruptcies or unclaimed property, to name a few.

City councils, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies are required to provide special notices of special meetings, for example, because those notices must list all items to be discussed. Public notices are required for public hearings on land zoning changes, proposed budgets and taxes, certain ordinances, annexations, and when the government plans to use its ultimate police power – the use of eminent domain to take private property.

Public notices are like the third leg of a stool – with the open records and open meetings laws.

Proposals have been made in Tennessee and other states to move those disclosure notices solely to government websites. That would be tantamount to eliminating public notices as they have historically been.

As one commentator in Georgia noted on a similar county commissioners’ association proposal: “That would take notices out of plain sight and bury them in the tangle of documents on government-designated websites.”

Anyone looking for a public notice would have to know exactly what they are searching for and when and where to look. Instead of going to their local newspaper where they have always gone to see notices, citizens would be left searching for “a needle in a haystack.”

Public notices need to be made available as widely as possible. Tennessee newspapers and the General Assembly smartly went in that direction last year.

Since April 1, Tennessee newspapers post every notice printed in the local paper on their local website and on a statewide, aggregate website provided by the Tennessee Press Association. Those extra services are included at no extra cost to the entity placing the notices.

To ensure the notices are easily found, newspapers must link to the notices section from the website homepage. From there they link to the statewide website at The site is searchable.

Read the rest of the story in this weeks Fentress Courier.