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7/30/2007
Councilman Weiner Opposes Cancellation of Public Notices

NCCo to halt some notices of hearings
Move said to save thousands; Web posts, News Journal ads to continue

By ANGIE BASIOUNY, The News Journal
Posted Monday, July 30, 2007

New Castle County will stop placing public-hearing notices in the area's weekly newspapers, a decision that will save taxpayers thousands of dollars each year.

But critics -- from inside and outside the government -- are questioning whether it's wise to limit the number of outlets where the public can get information on county activities.

"Democracy costs money," Councilman Robert Weiner, R-2nd District, said. "And a transparent government is not free."

He made his comments last week, just before the council voted 7-6 to stop printing legal notices in the Newark Post, five Community News papers and the Middletown Transcript. All the papers, except the Newark Post, are owned by the Dover Post Co.

The decision is the latest move in the county's effort to reduce what it spends on legal notices.

In fiscal 2004, the county spent $303,261 for full-page color ads in Community News publications, which circulate in Brandywine Hundred and the Hockessin-Pike Creek area. The amount has dwindled each year, with the county paying $110,971 in the last fiscal year for half-page, black-and-white ads.

The ads are printed to alert people to upcoming land use applications and hearings before reviewing agencies such as the Planning Board or Historical Review Board.

"This is a financial decision. That's all it is," said Councilman George Smiley, D-7th, who sponsored the change to the county's Greater Notification Ordinance.

Smiley contends advertising in weekly publications is unnecessary and a waste of money. The county also informs the public about upcoming hearings through posts on its Web site, large yellow signs staked at properties on the agenda and mailings to surrounding property owners.

It also will continue advertising in The News Journal, which has a daily statewide circulation of 113,950 daily and 133,437 on Sunday. The Community News papers have a combined circulation of 59,355 and are not available in all areas of the county.

"I'm not disputing the integrity of the newspaper," Smiley said. "But I think the Internet is a much more accessible media and the information is all there."

But opponents say many residents, especially the elderly and the poor, are not comfortable with or do not have computers. Instead, they rely on local papers.

"Don't take this away from the people who use this to keep in touch with county matters," said Ken Murphy, a longtime Hockessin civic activist.

Chuck Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said his group is against the change because it does not serve the public interest.

"Often, cost savings take priority over other considerations," he said. "But in this case, the county's duty to make legal notices widely available is by far the most important priority."

There is no information available on how many local governments across the country are dropping newspaper advertising in favor of Web postings, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties. However, there is an emerging trend of governments using their Web sites to share information.

"I don't think newspaper notices will go down the tubes," she said. "But the requirement to publish in every newspaper will. What you will see is the requirement to publish in the largest newspaper and in the electronic format."

In New Castle County's case, she said, advertising in weeklies "sounds like it was a self-imposed courtesy" because the government was running ads in the daily newspaper.

"[New Castle County] is doing the kinds of things many county governments are doing, with starting to look at the most cost-effective means of getting out the information," she said.

That's how Councilman Jea P. Street sees it.

Street, who voted for the change, thinks of the cost savings in terms of police protection. The $172,000 is equivalent to a "cop and a half," he said.

But John Flaherty, former lobbyist for the good-government group Common Cause of Delaware, is bothered that the county would try to save money by discontinuing ads meant to inform constituents.

"I think it's a public disservice to eliminate this source of notification," he said. "Advertising on the Web is a supplement, but it's no substitute. If they want to save money, they should probably give up their travel and other expenses."
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

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