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Public Notice Bills Threaten Democracy

Never, ever stop paying attention – advice from my mother regarding politics. But a whole slew of bills affecting public notice and public records may make it much more difficult for Tennesseans to pay attention to what their government is doing. Several bills will end newspaper publication of public notices – instead listing them only on government websites. Things like the sample ballot before elections, tax and fee increases, zoning changes and annexations. Other bills will reduce notices to one publication – like foreclosures. One bill will allow a fee for you to simply view a public record. And another set to pass will close 911 calls to the media! The effect of these policy changes to our open government laws will be a less informed citizenry. Many Tennesseans still do not have internet access – primarily senior citizens, young, low income individuals and the poorly educated. But even of those that have access – public notices are generally mundane – few will seek them out on a regular basis. I can hear the politicians now, scornfully blaming the citizen who is upset that he or she didn’t know of a zoning change or tax increase for not dutifully checking the government web site. Tennessee has one of the least restrictive foreclosure laws in the county – no courts, no judge, just mail a notice of sale to the address on hand, publish the notice of sale three times in the newspaper and then foreclose. Constructive notice – publishing the notice three times in the paper – has helped family members and friends save homes from foreclosure. Reducing visibility to one printing will reduce the odds of assistance. Charging a fee to view public records is simply outrageous – these are our records. It is our government. We should have full access to any government record as long as the information is not restricted due to some confidential nature; like social security numbers, health records or school records. Talk about protecting criminals and wife beaters! Denying the media access to 911 calls – unless the caller signs a release – hurts our society and protects criminals. Is it not common sense that callers will likely be a little embarrassed by their panic and so refuse to sign a release? How will callers even be located? But most important the reality is this, there is no expectation of privacy when a crime or emergency is reported – it is the same thing as yelling help out on the street. The target of all of these bills seems to be the media; to either reduce their revenue or to increase their costs. But the victim is you and me. Most people think it is a worthwhile expense to pay for traffic lights and stop signs – and not simply post of list of dangerous intersections on a government web site. Publication of government’s intent to take some action that may limit or change our rights, or that may take our property in the place where the community looks to learn of the local happenings; news, sports, births, deaths, opinions and local events, is not a trivial expense to be done away with in lean budget years or a weapon to be used against those who report on government actions but rather public notice is an essential price of democracy.

Susan Lynn was in the Tennessee General Assembly from 2002 until 2010. For more information on these bills visit www.publicnoticetn.com Email Susan at [email protected] EPPC has entered in to a project to defend open government in Tennessee called Public Notice: under threat. Several pieces of legislation threaten to end public notices in Tennessee's newspapers including notices of upcoming elections, zoning changes, rate increases and many others.
Please visit www.publicnoticetn.com to read EPPC's Issue briefs on these bills.