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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ind. Gov't. - "Who’s protecting our right to know?" What is adequate public notice?

Here is Steve Key's column in the most recent issue of HSPA newsletter. Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Assocation.

The Environmental Protection Agency responded to HSPA’s letter of concern about IDEM’s decision to replace public notice advertising with government website posting to give notice of hearings, as required by the Clean Air Act.

Unfortunately and not sur prisingly, [US EPA] Deputy Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe didn’t acknowledge any need to step into the fray or change the EPA’s current regulations and guidance pertaining to public notification.

In broad terms, she spoke of the EPA policy to be “media neutral on the method of notice … as long as the state has determined that the pub lic would have routine and ready access to such alternative publishing venues.”

The answer is illustrative of the lack of understanding many have concerning public notice and the difference between placing that notice in someone’s hands compared to making that notice accessible to someone.

In my letter to the EPA, I argued that media neutrality should apply only when it can be shown that the alterna tive to newspaper publication actually fulfills the require ment for public notice.

Indiana Department of Environmental Management Commissioner Thomas Easterly made it clear he believes the posting of the notices on the agency website adequately reaches those known to regularly comment or attend the hearings.

As Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said – IDEM’s website reaches “the usual suspects.”

So IDEM is satisfied that its web-posted notices are viewed by an average of 105 unique visitors a week.

This is compared to the combined circulation of the five Indiana newspapers IDEM was using to publicize the notices – 382,100. Taking into account the average num ber of people who read a par ticular copy of a newspaper, IDEM was placing notices in the hands of 802,400 people a week.

Public notice is a policy intended to reach citizens in general, not those with a special interest in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

The public in general may trust government officials to do right by them, may be too busy to act, or may be apathetic to government actions. Engraved invitations hand- delivered to homes wouldn’t guarantee a crowd at an IDEM hearing.

But attendance isn’t necessarily the goal of public notices. The opportunity to be involved is the key.

It’s an obligation of govern ment agencies in a democracy to let citizens know what is being contemplated, proposed or acted upon. The public can become involved or not, but they have the opportunity to hold their government accountable.

Public notice also serves to protect the public agency from accusations that it acted secretly because it can show that notice was placed in the hands of a large cross-section of the public.

The posting of notices on a government website that the public doesn’t know exists doesn’t do the job.

Common sense says average citizens have no inkling that they need to check IDEM’s website periodically on the chance that there may be an upcoming hearing that would spur them to action.

Numerous surveys conduct ed in different states show that the public expects and wants its government units to place public notices in their local newspapers rather than be solely on a government website.

Pulse Research of America this year in Indiana found more than 70 percent of adults preferred public notices in newspapers while less than 2 percent preferred govern ment website postings.

IDEM and the EPA don’t appear to hear or care what most taxpayers want in this case.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 30, 2013 04:28 PM
Posted to Environment | Indiana Government