Governor Vetoes Public Notice Bill

(from Maine Townsman, May 2008)
By Kate Dufour, Legislative Advocate, MMA

Several days after the Legislature finally adjourned, Governor Baldacci "pocket vetoed" LD 1878, An Act to Generate Savings by Changing Public Notice Requirements.  As enacted, LD 1878 (sponsored by Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield) would have authorized communities with limited daily or weekly newspaper service to post their legal notices in alternative newspapers upon the adoption of a publication policy by the municipal officers.

The municipal issue addressed in LD 1878 was the unnecessarily expensive requirements of Title 1 MRSA, section 601.  This law requires public notices to be published in newspapers mailed second class, which are the state's largest daily and weekly newspapers. The problem with this requirement is that it prevents municipalities from using newspapers that are mailed in bulk to provide public notice, except as a redundant additional expense to the municipality.   The alternative publication policy proposed in LD 1878 would have enabled municipalities to provide appropriate notice in the most cost effective manner possible.  In some communities the free mailers are the best way to get information to the public.  These newspapers are read by the local residents, received by every household and provide for larger, easier-to-read notices at lower prices than the daily or weekly newspaper advertising rates. 

In addition to the benefits provided to municipalities, LD 1878 proposed to save the state an average of $200,000 per year by reducing the length of state rulemaking notices that must be published in the newspapers.  As proposed, the volume of required material posted in state rulemaking notices would have been reduced to include a summary of the proposed rule, agency of jurisdiction, public hearing date, time and location, agency contact information, deadline for submitting comments and a telephone number for further information.  The bill would have also scaled back the requirement that the state publicize notices when state rules are adopted.  

According to the Governor's Communications Director, David Farmer, the veto was based on three concerns.                        

Adequate Public Access and Information.  Although the version of LD 1878 enacted by the Legislature did not require notices to be published exclusively on the Internet, the Governor raised the use of technology as one of the reasons for vetoing the bill.    According to the Governor's press release, "… this bill would reduce public access to the workings of government and make it less open.  Estimates suggest that between 25% to 30% of Maine people do not have access to the Internet and others are not comfortable using the Internet to access information".  The Governor also expressed concerned that the abbreviated information provided in state rulemaking notices would not provide the public with adequate information, even though the notice printed in the newspaper would include a telephone number for obtaining more information.

Timely Notice.  LD 1878 would have enabled certain communities to print public notices in newspapers mailed third class.  The Governor is concerned that the delivery schedule of these newspapers is less reliable and could adversely impact public notice delivery timing.   According to Governor Baldacci, "The state has an obligation to ensure that its citizens have access to information about what their government is doing", and therefore could not risk having local public notices published in newspapers mailed by third class mail. 

Although the bill would have allowed municipalities to use newspapers mailed by third class, nothing in LD 1878 would have relieved municipalities from meeting the notice publication timing requirements of existing law.  In other words, regardless of the medium used to publish notices, municipalities would still have been responsible for providing timely and adequate notice. 

Good Faith Negotiations.  Governor Baldacci believes that the newspaper industry has entered into good faith negotiations with the state to provide for rate reductions that will save the state more than $1.1 million in publication costs over the next five years.  According to David Farmer, the Governor also believes that the reduced publication rates negotiated four years ago, for the benefit of municipalities with low newspaper subscription rates, illustrates the newspaper industry's good faith efforts to help address costs at the local level as well. 

Unfortunately, from the municipal perspective the rate agreements negotiated four years ago do not eliminate the need to post notices in both newspapers of general circulation (to meet the letter of the law) and in third class mailers (to actually get the information out). 

Regardless of the Governor's actions, the 12 members of the State and Local Government Committee that supported LD 1878 are to be commended for their efforts to advance this legislation.  In the Association's ten-year history with this legislation, this is the first time this bill has actually been enacted by the Legislature.   Senator Elizabeth Schneider (Penobscot Cty.) and Representatives Christopher Barstow of Gorham, Terry Hayes of Buckfield and Henry Joy of Crystal are to be commended for their individual efforts for ensuring passage of this law. 

Municipal officials are not interested in limiting public access to important notices; their goal is to ensure that the best notice for the best cost possible is provided.  Municipal officials are having trouble understanding the Governor's decision to reject a reasonable, well-structured proposal to provide government services more cost effectively given the economic circumstances affecting all of us.  We thought that was the essential task for this legislative session.