Sunday, February 15, 2009
CAN CONNECTICUT AFFORD TO KNOW ABOUT GOVERNMENT?
By CHRIS POWELL
Back when it was common for newspapers to be partisan political organs as much as bearers of news, legal notice advertising placed by the government was treated as political patronage. A change of administration often moved the government's legal notices from one newspaper to another paper more aligned with the new administration's policies and people.
Legal advertising helped get The New York Times started. The paper's founder, the politically ambitious Henry J. Raymond, was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1850 and a year later became its speaker, whereupon he arranged passage of a law requiring the banks of New York City to publish weekly legal notices reporting their financial condition. Then Raymond arranged for a crony, the state banking commissioner, to require the banks to publish the notices in Raymond's own paper, the Times. Raymond went on to be elected a congressman and Republican national chairman, and the Times became the national paper of record.
Most newspapers today are not as openly partisan, and legal notices have mostly reverted to their proper purpose: alerting the public and the news media to government operations.
But as part of her state budget proposal, Governor Rell has introduced legislation to amend the state's legal notice law so that municipalities could fulfill their notice requirements with postings on their Internet sites instead of paid advertisements in newspapers with circulation in their areas. The idea is to save towns money.
Legal advertising is indeed an expense, but then it always has purchased something -- notice about the government within the community affected. Even in these hard times newspapers are the largest mechanisms of community. Many people get them and at least flip through their pages and come upon either legal notices or news stories involving the matters cited in those notices.
Town Internet sites lack such large regular audiences, since they do not contain general community news and advertising. It is hard to imagine anyone visiting a town Internet site every so often to review legal notices there, hard to see how posting legal notices there would achieve much actual notice to the public.
Further, many town officials are seeking repeal of a recent state law requiring towns that have Internet sites to post there the minutes of their public agency meetings. Such regular updating of town Internet sites, these officials say, is too complicated and expensive.
The question seems to be: How much is actual public notice of government operations worth?
That question becomes more compelling as the recession forces newspapers to reduce local content, their most expensive component, and to diminish their coverage of government particularly. Indeed, many towns in Connecticut now get no regular attention from any news organizations at all, or only the most superficial attention, just as news coverage of state government has diminished greatly over the last two decades.
Perhaps not coincidentally, corruption in government in Connecticut has increased immensely in that time, with resignations and convictions involving the governor, state treasurer, and the mayors of Bridgeport and Waterbury, and now with the corruption prosecution of the mayor of Hartford.
So repealing the legal notice requirement may mean not only less actual notice to the public but, insofar as it reduces newspaper revenue, even less community coverage and scrutiny of government. Indeed, two Connecticut newspapers, the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, recently came within hours of going out of business, and the threat that even cities of that size might lose news coverage had some public officials clamoring for state government's intervention. Would the new owner of those two papers have been quite as ready to try to save them and help maintain their communities as vibrant and middle-class had he known that state government's response would be only to eliminate legal notices in newspapers?
Maybe Connecticut has gotten so desperate that it no longer can afford to give the public any actual notice about government operations and no longer can afford a press that reports local news. But then people might as well give up on their state and move somewhere else, and it would be hard to plead such desperation in a month when, even as the governor declares a financial crisis, state government gives its employees paid holidays -- Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays -- while the taxpayers themselves remain hard at work.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.