LTE: Is This What You Call Reform?

Reform and transparency have been the topic of much discussion in the last few years.

There has been a lot of talk, some action, and now a proposal that would be a huge step in the wrong direction.

We’re talking about a push by local governments to take public notices out of newspapers and put them on government Web sites. They claim that it would be cheaper and more convenient for the public. At best, these claims are misguided. At worst, they are misleading and promote government secrecy and cronyism.

Make no mistake about it. This proposal is not about saving money. It’s about limiting access and hiding government action from the public.

Let’s examine the claims used to promote Senate Bill 419.

First, supporters claim that putting public notices on government Web sites would save money. Not so. Public records show that regardless of a municipality’s size – from the City of Philadelphia to the smallest borough – only about 1/2 of 1 percent of operating expenditures is spent on public notices – and often even less. Even advocates of the bill admit that it won’t solve a single fiscal problem.

And don’t forget the cost of creating the government Web sites – which must be secure, archivable, and current. A Department of State Web database site cost over $600,000 initially, with an annual cost of about $60,000. And that’s only one Web site. This bill would invite every local government to create its own.

Of course, those figures don’t even begin to calculate the negative cost to the public – of not having an independent, verifiable repository for public notices. What is the cost of not knowing that your school board is about to raise your taxes, because the meeting notice was hidden on its Web site? What about not getting notice that your neighbor wants to build a garage on the property line you share? Don’t you want to know that a developer has applied to build a new strip mall on the field behind your home?

Those pushing this bill also claim that it will be “easier” for the public to find notices on government Web sites. Again, not true. First, the bill does not establish any standards for how or where these notices must be placed. As a result, the 4,000+ local governments in Pennsylvania would likely put notices on their individual sites. Good luck finding them there, if you even know where to look.

Do the bill’s supporters know that web traffic statistics show that very few people go to government Web sites? If this bill becomes law, public notices will be effectively hidden from public view and could be manipulated to benefit “friendly” contractors or
developers. No reform there.

Even more significant, Census figures show that many Pennsylvanians – up to 30% – still do not have Internet access. Those people will be completely cut out of the process. Who are our elected officials serving with this bill? Certainly not those voters.

Finally, newspapers already post notices on the Internet, at no cost to government or the public. In 1999, Pennsylvania newspapers created, a robust, searchable, database of public notices published by newspapers across the state, uploaded daily.

Public notices are important. They are part of the three-legged stool that protects the public’s right to participate in government – including public records, open meetings, and public notices. Allowing governments to control their own Internet notices would eliminate independent, verifiable notices and would be tantamount to the fox building the henhouse and deciding how strong it needs to be—or not. That’s not our idea of reform.

Do newspapers benefit from public notices? Of course. But we all benefit when we know what our government is up to. Newspapers, more than perhaps any other business, serve the public interest by informing the public about government activities and spending. They accomplish this by pushing for greater access to government, studying public records, covering local meetings, and publishing public notices.

Public notices must remain public. Please write, telephone, or e-mail your Senators today and urge them to vote no on Senate Bill 419.

Tim Williams
President, PNA

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