I read legal notices and I think you should, too

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Most people don’t pay attention to the legal notices published in the back of the paper.

Almost every Thursday morning, I grab a copy at Javatinis (it’s on my route to work) and turn to the legal notices. I don’t get to see them before you do, because reporters don’t normally see advertisements before publication.

Not all journalists like the idea of legal notices. Some of my favorite journalism colleagues have no use for them and no respect for them. Me, I like legal notices.

I often find out about public meetings before they happen because I check the legal notices in the paper. I also make at least one trip a week to City Hall to check the bulletin boards. (I should take the trip more often; I need the exercise.)

“Requiring independent, third party newspapers to ensure that public notices run in accordance with the law helps prevent government officials from hiding information they would prefer the public not to see,” according to the Public Notice Resource Center.

Those are harsh words, but they are consistent with my work experience. When I was an intern with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C., back in the 20th century, one of my coworkers covered a city in the state of Washington that would not post council agendas. A newspaper took them to court. The court ordered that particular city to post an agenda that included the date, time, and location of the meeting on the agenda.

That city “obeyed” the court by posting an agenda that said their council was in session 24 hours a day in the council chambers. Officials insisted that they “considered themselves to be in session 24 hours a day.” Uh huh.

That’s an extreme example of what I call “opaque transparency:” when a government complies with the absolute minimum requirements of disclosure while disclosing as little as possible—and often expecting extra praise for just barely doing the minimum.

How much money does Seal Beach spend on legal notices?

The Seal Beach budget for 2023-24 includes $12,800 for legal notices. That’s against an overall budget of $102.1 million (see page 7 of the adopted budget). That’s just 0.000012549019607843138% of the city budget, according to two online calculators.

To put that in perspective, that’s also a hair more than 43% of a minimum wage paycheck.

Sadly, there are some cities that have taken legal steps so that public notices don’t have to be published in a newspaper. Stated reason: saving money. Some city government notices are physically posted on a bulletin board outside City Hall.

Note that some notices, such as the notice that the city is seeking someone to fill a vacated seat on a board or commission, don’t need to be published in a newspaper and the bulletin board is the only place to find them.

A cynic might think some city governments hope the public won’t bother to visit City Hall in person. (Ahem. I would.)

Under that system, people who have day jobs can’t get away to check the bulletin board on a regular basis. Also, it would be hard for a physically disabled person to read a notice pinned high above their head. (I wonder if that would be an ADA violation?) But it’s “transparent” because the minimum requirements of law are being met.

That’s a more subtle form of opaque transparency.

Fortunately, Seal Beach officials have said nothing (that I know of) about putting notices on websites or only on bulletin boards. (Incidentally, putting notices on websites would discriminate against anyone who doesn’t have internet. Seal Beach has a significant senior population that is unfamiliar with the internet.)

But let’s get back to the public notices in the back pages of the Sun.

I advise you to read them.

Maybe you trust people who’ve never seen your face and don’t know your name to just voluntarily tell you things.

I don’t trust myself that much, let alone anyone else.

As I said, I like legal notices. They are public records. Documents I trust. Human beings? Only up to a point.

Charles M. Kelly is associate editor of the Sun. He is also a bit of a grouch.