State should weigh costs of legal notices

With some $8.7 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for Massachusetts, there’s an interesting political debate being played out in the Massachusetts State House over one element of disbursing those funds.

Governor Deval Patrick has asked the Legislature for a change in the public notice requirements that govern the way public contracts are dispensed by the state government. The State House News Service (SHNS ) reported this week that the Governor seeks to eliminate “the requirement that solicitations of public construction contracts funded by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) be published in newspapers while retaining the requirement that solicitations be posted to the state’s Central Register, run by the Secretary of State and the State Library.”

In short, the state would no longer be required to pay newspapers to publish the legal notices. In these tough economic times, when newspaper publishers are struggling to find new sources of revenue to replace the huge amounts that have vanished in recent years, the Governor’s proposal cuts off yet another advertising source for the print media, and a trade group for newspaper owners is mounting a lobbying campaign to oppose the plan.

Our readers should know that by law many newspapers, including The Reporter, derive a steady and reliable stream of income by the publication of certain court records and other government documents. For example, notices about court documents such as petitions for divorce, name changes, adoptions and probate of wills are required to be published in newspapers circulated within geographic vicinity of the interested parties, and that those legal notices are paid advertisements. In most legal notices ordered by the court, the cost of publishing is borne by the private parties offering the petitions.

But many large technical legal notices, commonly referred to as “Requests for Proposals” or RFPs, currently are required to appear in general circulation journals, often at great cost to the state and local governments.

In the instance of the coming RFP season for the stimulus-funded projects, the Governor thinks he can save large sums of funds by changing the legal notice requirements, turning to free online sites and public agency postings. “Posting procurement notices online saves money and time for taxpayers,” an administration spokesperson said. “The process will continue to be completely transparent and information on public projects will be fully available online.”

The expected reaction from newspaper owners was swift and certain, the SHNS reports. Calling it a “sea change” in how the solicitations are advertised, Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association said, “Public notices in newspapers have withstood the test of time and become an established and recognized check on government. To remove these notices from newspapers would be a disservice to the citizens of Massachusetts and would hang a dark and heavy cloak over government transparency and accountability.”

The issue was aired this week at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee, whose chairmen said they would look “carefully” at the proposal.

For some legislators, it could be a tough choice: The politicians will be asked to decide whether the money-saving reform makes sense, especially when they risk antagonizing the businesses that traditionally carry the news of their votes and accomplishments- and indeed their foibles- to their constituents.