Somerset County: A Model for Public Notices in the Internet Age

Somerset County is far ahead of its peers when it comes to issuing public notices in the internet era.

Citizens can view all of Somerset County’s public notices on the county website in a format that is searchable and easy to read. They can also choose to select which county notices they receive via email. And they can still search through the classifieds sections of print newspapers for public notices.

Today, after a backlash from newspapers and citizens, the New Jersey Assembly delayed voting on a bill that would require municipalities to publish public notices on their websites instead of in newspapers. The last-minute bill was being considered without much thought, and has been viewed as a move by Gov. Chris Christie to punish newspapers that aggressively covered the Bridgegate scandal. Legislators seem to have given little though to how municipalities that are not up to date in terms of technology and a website presence would comply with new electronic requirements. Even in Princeton, municipal departments and the clerk’s office still sometimes send out notices and electronic versions of other correspondence and election results as scanned images converted to PDFs rather than searchable PDF files or other usable, searchable formats.

There is also the issue of how to monitor and guarantee compliance by government bodies. To guarantee that notices are properly posted and are not removed from websites, the notices should also be submitted to a searchable state database or a similar system operated by the state’s news outlets.

As state elected officials weigh whether or not municipalities and other public agencies still should be required to publish public notices in print newspapers, they should look at best practices in the state and gather more information from those agencies about their costs using new technology to post notices. Reviewing costs and best practices at Somerset County and other government agencies that have implemented online notice systems would be a good place to start.

State legislators need to look at models both in state and out of state if they truly care about adapting to new technology and new ways of consuming information in ways that are transparent and in the public’s best interest. In the meantime, until municipalities have proven they can implement the technology to publish all notices in a searchable way on the web — and until the state can create a tracking system for such notices — municipalities should be required to continue publishing notices in print newspapers. They should be required to do both before the state moves to cut print notices.

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton.