Newspapers oppose plan to put legal ads on-line

Towns across the state are required by law to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to print notices in local newspapers to inform the public of government happenings – a mandate Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants the legislature to repeal.

But at a time when they are already struggling to stay afloat,  newspapers say the loss of legal advertising revenue could be fatal.

“There’s no question some newspapers would go out of business,” said Jim Leahy, executive director of Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association.

Rell’s proposal to allow municipalities to use websites instead of newspapers to publish legal ads is part of a package to reduce “unfunded mandates” on Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.

“Cities and towns have been begging for this type of relief for quite some time,” said Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot.

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Spokesman Kevin Maloney said the group supports the change.

“Cutting this would provide real cost savings for towns,” he said. “There’s a sense that the time has come, but politically it has been difficult to get traction behind it.”

Leahy recognizes times are tough, but said throwing out a mandate that forces the government’s happenings to be in public view is unreasonable.

“There are costs associated with an open society and this is a necessary cost,” he said.

The Norwalk Hour’s publisher, Chet Valiante, said abolishing the notices in print and only requiring they run on municipal Web sites would significantly diminish the volume of people viewing them.

“We’re in people’s view much more than municipal Web sites I think ever will be,” he said. “It leaves room for corruption. This is no time to reduce safeguards on accountability and accessibility.”

There is no shortage of proponents and opponents of the change – but Democratic leaders will ultimately have the final say.

Both House Speaker Christopher Donovan and Senate Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr. said they are unsure if they will act on Rell’s proposal.

“It is one of the things we are considering but have yet to decide,” Williams said.

Donovan is cautious of eliminating the requirement, saying, “How’s the public going to find out about these things? … But we do need to weigh the costs.”

East Hartford spends almost $100,000 a year for legal advertisements, Mayor Melody Currey said.

“It would be very helpful if we could just post them online. Anytime you can save money it helps,” she said.

Vernon was able to shave their $100,000 annual cost down to around $20,000 by taking advantage of publishing the notices in a weekly newspaper that has much cheaper advertisements.

Mayor Jason McCoy said not every town is fortunate enough to have this option and the law still requires too many notices be published.

Some things we are required to publish there is no great public concern and shouldn’t be required. There are just too many requirements,” he said.

CDNA and the 17 daily newspapers in Connecticut they represent feel differently, which is why newspapers around the state have been running full-page advertisements asking people to call their legislators to voice their opposition to Rell’s proposal.

“Public notices are an important tool in assuring an informed citizenry,” the advertisement reads. “Newspapers are easily verifiable, fully transparent and represent a secure third party who has nothing to gain from any notice. Connecticut’s recent ethical lapses shed a glaring light on the full meaning of this problem.”

Maureen Jakubisyn, vice president of the small weekly Cheshire Herald, said few people would actually go searching online for these notices.

“It’s an out of sight out of mind approach. People would never know they should go on a government sight looking for these things, and that’s a problem,” she said.

But critics of the requirement say fewer people are reading the newspaper anyway so it is no longer serving intended purpose.

“The thing is newspapers are no longer the mass media. On my street in Danbury I am the only one who gets the newspaper,” said Rep. Bob Godfrey (D-Danbury) who supports Rell’s proposal. “The information would still be available, just in a medium more accessible than newspapers. Newspapers are not the mass medium that they use to be and we need to switch over to the media that now is.”

Democratic leaders will decide if they plan to move on Rell’s initiative, but meanwhile the proposal has been referred to the Committee on Planning and Development.

Co-chairman of the committee, Senator Eric D. Coleman (D-Bloomfield), said he see positives and negatives in the proposal.

“Depending on the alternatives of where they will appear it could be a good idea. I have determined that not everyone has access to a paper. But we have to come up with a reasonable alternative,” he said. “I would need to see the purpose could be accomplished through alternative means. Newspapers may be too extreme and just posting them on the Internet may not be enough, we’ll have to decide that this session.”