Hold the presses!

At a time when a greater number of people get their news via the internet, posting public notices to a website instead of in print media makes sense and could save government entities money. At least, that’s the idea behind a bill pushed for a vote last week that would do away with the age-old practice of advertising governmental notices in newspapers. Municipalities could put the notices on their own websites.

But what was dangerous about the proposal was the lack of accountability.

The reason the current law requires legal notices be printed is to prove the notice appeared on a specific date, which is often crucial in resolving legal conflicts involving the acquisition of land, diversity hiring, and other issues.

To relegate these announcements to a website controlled by those required to do the reporting is like having the fox watch over the chicken coop. Public notices issued in the print media provides an additional and unbiased layer of accountability a municipal website lacks. It is much more difficult to alter, remove, or add information from such notices if they are given to legitimate media.

Proponents of the change cite the massive costs associated with the current system of published notices since each county, municipality, and school board must issue such notices, along with associated boards such as zoning, environmental, planning, historic and such. Bayonne, Secaucus and other towns in Hudson County have been required in the past to advertise for hiring of minorities outside those towns and even Hudson County. It is unclear if this bill would allow these towns to simply post these notices on their government websites, voiding if not the letter of the law, then certainly its spirit.

Since nearly all media outlets in the state have their own websites, the state could just have easily negotiated for a lower advertising rate on newspaper websites, allowing government entities to choose which fit their needs the best.

The New Jersey Press Association currently provides a website archive where these notices are posted, which has become a valuable tool for public relations, lobbyists, and others. One lobbyist said if such notices are posted on individual websites it may be impossible for anyone to keep track of these throughout the state.

In fact, newspaper offered a compromise bill. In the end, facing pressures from the public and good-government groups, the bill was not voted on as the state legislative session ended last week.

The bill can also be seen as the latest chapter in the ongoing hostility between Gov. Christopher Christie and an extremely critical media, so it was dubbed “the revenge bill,” as it would have a negative impact on newspapers’ revenues. Proponents have suggested the savings statewide to the taxpayers could be as much as $80 million per year – an unlikely number, but a number that suggests print media would lose millions annually, and for some newspapers that could ring the death knell.

The fact that Democratic leadership in the both the state Senate and the Assembly supported the change raised additional protests before it ultimately failed to come up for a vote.

Upgrade for voting machines

Jersey City is the latest municipality in Hudson County to switch its municipal elections from May to November, and pressure is mounting to replace outdated voting machines with more up-to-date equipment. The current machines, which have an estimated life span of about seven years, have been in service since 2004.

Previous to 2004, Hudson County used mechanical voting machines, which the county had used for decades. Vast changes in technology have occurred in the intervening years. So has the call for more accountability.

The current Sequoia machines, when introduced in 2004, were controversial for a number of reasons, partly because they did not at the time require a paper backup, and partly because of the $4 million cost for the 600 machines.

Federal funding was provided at the time as a result of a call to upgrade after the 2000 presidential election in Florida highlighted problems with election machines there. Not only will the estimated cost for new machines be higher, but there will not likely be the same federal funding available to offset the cost.

Nor will new machines be available in time for the municipal elections in 2017, said Superintendent of Elections John Brzozowski.

New machines must get approval from the state and federal government, and Brzozowski predicted if all goes well, new machines will not be in place until 2018 at the earliest.

This poses significant problems for Jersey City in particular since space on the existing machines is limited.

With the gubernatorial election set next year for the top of the ballot, Jersey City faces significant space problems. This year 10 candidates ran for school board, which may well see a similar amount in 2017. Municipal elections are even more crowded. There are already three declared mayoral candidates with more expected to jump into the race. This may well include a full slate of nine council candidates for each ticket.

“The only thing you can do is to make the ballot entries smaller,” said Michael Harper from the Board of Elections, predicting significant confusion as a result.

City Council member Candice Osborne has offered to hold community meetings to come up with a new design for the ballot that might make voting more legible, but the final design for the ballot must be done by the county clerk’s office, Harper said.

Activist endorsed for Board of Education seat

Members of the former Jersey City United Board of Education slate have endorsed Robert Harper Jr. to fill the unexpired term of John Reichart, who resigned last month.

Harper (unrelated to the Board of Election member) was one of the leading community activists who led the federal environmental lawsuit against PPG Industries over the 14-acre chromium-contaminated property on Garfield Avenue in Ward F. This suit led eventually to the construction of Berry Lane Park. In 2011 he was nominated for the EPA’s “NJ Environmentalist of the Year Award” by Congressman Donald Payne Sr.

One time member of the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala, he is currently chairman of the Public Relations Committee of the Board of Directors of the NJ Peace Corps. He has appeared on MSNBC, NBC, and Dateline NBC as a financial consultant. And as a professor at NJCU, he has taught courses in Media Production and Film Finance & History. His film project “Typecast” premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival in France.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com