Due process includes effective public notice
By now, most people in Mesa County are aware that the county commissioners last week fired County Administrator Chantal Unfug with little advance notice to the public that her job status was under consideration.
We, and many people in this county who have contacted us, believe the commissioners’ action was a gross failure of their responsibility to keep members of the public adequately informed about what their county government is doing.
A different attempt to make it more difficult for the public to stay informed has been introduced in the Colorado Legislature. Both items, we believe, adversely affect citizens’ due process rights. And they go to the heart of government’s duty to conduct its business in public and with realistic advance notice.
House Bill 1064 is a replay of previous legislative attempts to eliminate the requirement that local governments publish legal notices in area newspapers. It would allow local governments instead to post legal notices exclusively on their websites.
We acknowledge that we have a financial stake in publishing legal notices, but The Daily Sentinel’s survival doesn’t depend upon them. However, many small newspapers in rural communities do need the revenue from legal notices to remain afloat.
But, newspaper survival aside, there is a serious issue of the constitutional right to due process.
Both the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution provide that nobody can be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” And critical to due process is being notified about what is occurring.
In some situations, that may involve notice by personal service or registered mail. But for most government entities, who are required to keep all of their constituents informed, that requires “constructive notice” — placing a notice where any person, with a minimum of effort, can be aware of the content of the notice and of pending action.
Newspapers provide a venue for such constructive notice related to matters such as local government budgets, spending, tax issues and property foreclosures.
Local government websites, which have a tiny fraction of newspaper readership and force citizens to go searching for official notices rather than having them delivered on their doorstep, don’t meet the notice requirement.
Moreover, residents of many small communities often don’t have effective access to the Internet to read legal notices on government websites.
Similarly, a hastily placed notice on a county wall that offered no indication the commissioners were going to discuss possible dismissal of the county administrator doesn’t pass the smell test for effective public notice or effective due process.
We hope HB 1064 dies a swift death in the Legislature, and that the latest group of Mesa County commissioners commits to doing a better job of keeping constituents informed. That includes providing a better explanation of the reasons for Unfug’s dismissal and the terms of her severance package.