27 Jul 2016

Push to end councils' obligation be put public notices in papers

8:59 am on 27 July 2016

A Palmerston North newspaper's costly failure to print a public notice has prompted calls for a change to the way councils get information to the public.

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The failure to print a notice in the Manawatu Standard has cost the Manawatu District Council $10,000. Photo: 123rf

The Manawatu District Council has had to reissue proposed changes to its District Plan after the Manawatu Standard failed to print an original notice.

Because the council was not aware the public notice failed to appear at the start of May, the council's plans were delayed for about three months, costing it $10,000.

The council's general manager for community and strategy, Brent Limmer, said "an ad that we're required by law to put in the paper didn't actually get published".

"It meant that we had to go back and restart the whole process to ensure we met our legislative requirements," he said.

And the costly hold-up has revealed a problem.

By law, local authorities must publish their public notices in local newspapers. But with fewer households getting a newspaper, some want public notices to be more widely distributed.

Mr Limmer thought the legislation was now outdated and was not an effective way of engaging with the public.

"We also use a number of avenues to get the information out there," he said. "We use our website... our Facebook site and other bits and pieces."

"None of those, in the way the law is written at the moment, can substitute for the requirement of a public notice," he said.

Governance consultant Peter McKinlay said giving public notice in the newspaper was anachronistic, harking back to another age.

"I think the issue is what you're trying to achieve," he said. "At the moment it looks like basically a 'tick the box' compliance requirement - you've put it in the public notices column of the newspaper therefore you've done what the legislation requires."

"If the purpose is to inform your communities that there's something happening they should be interested in, then you need different approaches."

The Department of Internal Affairs said it was working on a proposal to require councils to publish public notifications on their websites as well as in newspapers.

But Mr McKinlay said councils needed to put them where people would see them.

He said it was not just about Twitter and Facebook, but being where people were, and that could be as simple as having a stall at the local farmers' market.