Public Notices Critical to Keeping People Informed

By 
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

If you leaf through the pages of The Daily Record, you’ll learn what is happening in the Omaha community — and not just from news stories.

Public notices provide a critical means for members of the community to keep track of actions by the government and courts, as well as by fellow citizens, businesses and organizations. Laws require publication of certain information as a fail-safe to make sure important decisions aren’t made in secret and so there are breadcrumbs to follow if you’re trying to, say, investigate a company or find someone who has gone missing.

Notices shouldn’t be the only way that the public can learn about important decisions by its representatives. But notices help make sure that the information is available to those who are interested, and so lawmakers shouldn’t skip public notices if they’re seeking to make sure decisions are transparent.

That’s why it’s surprising that Legislative Bill 644 — which would require certain political subdivisions to hold a joint public hearing to raise taxes  and require the subdivisions to mail a postcard to each taxpayer —doesn’t require a public notice as well.

Because the bill only requires representatives of each subdivision that participates in the hearing, it wouldn’t necessarily constitute a meeting of any given subdivision, so it wouldn’t necessarily trigger a notification requirement under Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act. So if lawmakers adopt LB 644 without an explicit public notice requirement, it’s conceivable some of these hearings would be conducted without meeting the notification requirements that the subdivisions otherwise have to meet separately.

Representatives of Nebraska’s newspapers have been working with state senators to amend the bill to require publication of a public notice for these special joint public hearing sessions. If they aren’t successful, taxpayers may have no other way to learn about these sessions, since there’s no guarantee the mailed postcards would be delivered in a timely fashion that provides adequate advance notice.

Reasonable people can disagree whether the underlying aims of LB 644 are worthwhile. The cost of mailing postcards could be burdensome, and the legislation appears designed to discourage elected officials from raising taxes — something many already are not generally inclined to do.

At the point that counties, cities, school districts and community colleges are asked to conduct a mailing and hold a special joint hearing, the cost of publishing a notice in a newspaper is trivial. But it may just be the difference between keeping the public informed and political theater.

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