Thursday, May 21, 2009

Justice Department to stop buying newspaper ads notifying neighbors of planned property seizures

Saying it would save $6.7 million over five years, the Justice Department is phasing out "its practice of buying newspaper ad space to publish property forfeiture notices," in favor of notifications on a new Web site, reports Brent Kendall of Dow Jones Newswires.

"Federal regulations require the department to advertise all pending court actions in which the government is seeking to seize private property as part of criminal and civil proceedings," Kendall writes. The White House said the notices would still appear in local newspapers "for a period of time."

"The advertising phase-out was listed as one of 121 government programs targeted for cuts and reductions," Kendall notes. But it seems to us that a notice in a local newspaper is a lot more likely to inform people who need to know, such as creditors or adjoining property owners, than a Web site that will be visited only by people looking for forfeitures. And we think that's especially true in rural areas, where use of the Internet is lower.

Of a similar mind is Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, lamenting in today's Arkansas Publisher Weekly passage in Nevada of the latest state law allowing legal ads to be replaced by Internet postings. He raises an interesting point: "In 1991, some stealth legislation was successfully promoted through the U.S. Congress to remove the requirement that federally chartered banks publish quarterly 'statements of condition.' The act removed a layer of transparency in banking. It’s hard to say if maintaining this transparency on the solvency or lack of it of banks would have blunted the current banking crisis and the huge economic mess in which we currently find ourselves, but the costs involved are minor compared to the damage that’s been done. Banks put these reports on their Web sites. When was the last time you saw one? This will be the case if other public notices are allowed to be squirreled away in some obscure Web site where they can be hidden in plain sight. This is hardly a formula for promoting open government." (Read more)


Howard Owens said...

What could possibly be more open, more transparent and more accessible than publishing legal notices on the Web, where they are immediately available to the entire world?

Newspapers don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to arguing that legal notices must be print only.

Al Cross said...

That's not where newspapers stand, Howard. Most state press associations have created Web sites where legal ads are uploaded without charge and can be downloaded for free, and most newspapers in those states participate. The print ads are still needed to reach people who lack Internet access or might not be looking for the information, but would be interested it once they see it.

dthompson said...

Transparency has nothing to do with the media used. The transparency issue is the idea that government agencies will be allowed to post the information, if they remember, in formats that may not be accessible by all, if any, of the public, and without assurance the notices remain public on an active website, instead of being posted momentarily, and then deleted.

Transparency is making sure a third party is involved. And that third party is newspapers, an independent voice, that can ensure notices are published, as they are required, and when. And 50 years from now, someone can still go to the archives to find a required publication. the web does not offer that assurance.

What would western Kentuckians have done in January, where power was out for up to 17 days? If notices were available only on the internet, how would they have known what the local governments are doing. Newspapers in those same areas didn't miss an issue, many worked long hours around kitchen tables, with generators at hand, to make sure each issue made it to the press and into hands of local residents.