AUSTIN, Texas – The House Committee on Technology heard more than an hour’s worth of testimony Thursday morning on a bill that would lessen the number of public notices required of local government entities.

Both the Texas Press Association and Texas Daily Newspaper Association have come out in opposition to House Bill 507 as filed by state Rep. Angie Chen Button at the request of the city of Garland. Under current law, public notices pertaining to bids and proposals are published twice in a local newspaper. HB507 reduces that number to one, with the governmental entity to place the public notice on its own or a contracted website.

TPA and TDNA were joined by others, including the Texas Association of Broadcasters, NAACP and ACLU, in opposition at the hearing, with arguments including that the bill would limit the public’s knowledge of what a government entity is doing and notices could be “hidden” on the entities’ websites as a result of no standards being set for their placement. Also noted as an argument was that the public’s knowledge of government bid notices has already been lessened due to the ceiling of what has to be bid having been raised.

On behalf of the Texas Public Purchasing Association and speaking in support of Chen Button’s bill, city of Cedar Park purchasing manager Cindy Hallett said the public is informed with a single notice in a newspaper. She characterized a second public notice as “redundant” and said arguments against HB507 are invalid.

“Our argument is, if we’ve published it once, we’ve done our due diligence,” she said, saying people don’t use newspapers to find something but rather use Google online.

Hallett also responded to the newspapers’ argument that smaller companies might be affected by the decrease in newspaper notifications.

“As a steward of my citizens’ tax dollars, which I take very seriously, if I have a contract that’s going to be over $50,000, I don’t necessarily want your mom and pop business that doesn’t have the capital to execute that contract,” Hallett said. “I’m going to want a larger contractor that I know is going to be able to fulfill that contract and not have issues.” 

In presenting her bill to the committee, Chen Button said, “I believe most people just don’t read public notices,” adding, “The reality is we are in the world of technology.”

If an entity doesn’t have a website, the current statute remains in place, Chen Button said, saying she believes her bill “actually increases the chance of the public to view the information” and that she’s been told bidders prefer electronic notifications.

The bill also saves taxpayers money and allows local governments the same flexibility as the state, which doesn’t have to put bid notices in newspapers any more, she said, saying there is more than one type of public forum and a balance needs to be struck.

Lauren Crawford with the Texas Municipal League also spoke for the bill. Under questioning from the committee, she acknowledged HB507 doesn’t address how the notices would be placed on an entity’s website and that it was “partially an assumption that bidders would have access to the Internet.”

Most cities and counties have libraries offering computers with free Internet access, however, she said, saying bidders could go online there.

“I think Internet access is widely available enough that most vendors who are looking will be able to find it,” she said, saying most people reading the notices would be those wanting to do the work, not necessarily the general public.

“I would argue that the public probably doesn’t read these notices a whole lot anyway,” she said, saying that people without Internet access could also go to City Hall if they want to see the public notices.

Keith Elkins of the Freedom of Information Institute of Texas remarked on the bill proponents’ repeated mentions of “it’s wanted by the bidders” and “it’s convenient for bidders.”

“We are concerned for the taxpayers,” he said, noting that 27 percent of Texans do not have Internet and “that doesn’t say that all of the others know how to use it.”

The newspapers’ certification process and publishers’ affidavits prove public notices were filed according to the law, he said, saying, “There is proof of legal compliance, proof of verification by an independent source. You don’t have a fox guarding the henhouse kind of thing.”

Elkins also noted the lack of any guidelines in HB507 as to how and where public notices would be on a governmental entity’s website.

“Everybody knows where the public notice section of a newspaper is. … It is there every day in the same location. It may not be the same way on a city website,” he said, recommending that standards be set that would include a search function on a governmental entity’s website.

“Are there instances where someone might want to put the information in a hidden format? I can think of plenty,” he said, saying that setting standards “might clear up some of those issues.”

Describing the move from newspapers to electronic as a historical and significant change, Elkins said, “It’s not one we need to take lightly. Obviously, we need to look at it very careful and make sure it’s got thoughtful vetting.”

This week is Sunshine Week, which recognizes the importance of open and transparent government, Elkins said, saying if HB507 were to pass without some changes “it would be a step back into the darkness in not putting the information out.”

Elkins also reminded the committee members of the joint Texas Press Association and Texas Daily Newspaper Association website that pulls in public notices published in more than 600 newspapers across the state as an additional, free service to both governmental entities and the public.

“Our concern (with the bill) is accessibility,” he said. “We will be more than happy to look at any suggestion to try and improve the current situation. We just don’t want to go back from what we currently have.”

New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung publisher Doug Toney was among those who addressed the committee.

“If the issue was to increase public awareness just to contractors, there is absolutely nothing anywhere that I know of that prevents counties, cities and school boards from already doing this on their websites. If this was the case (to assist vendors), they could all be doing that,” he said. “If this was just a vendor/supplier notice, they would have called it that, but it’s called a ‘public notice’ and it does serve that purpose.”

At the hearing’s end, committee Chairman Aaron Pena asked Elkins, the other newspaper representatives and Button Chen to meet and work with each other on the issues, with the bill left pending at this time.

Contact JoAnn at joann@wninews.com or 469-517-1452.