Most candidates running for public office will tell you they are strong supporters of government transparency. But some of these same now-legislators support measures to allow local governments to stop posting public notices in local newspapers.
Public notices cover a variety of subjects and actions — meeting minutes, government expenditures, annual salary summaries, notices of public hearings, unpaid property tax bills and various other items of interest.
Putting this information before the public, with an independent source, assures levels of transparency, accountability and visibility. When these notices appear in local newspapers, near other information that citizens are reading, they might spot the notices and spend a few minutes keeping tabs on their local governments’ activities. Some watchdog readers will specifically seek the information out in the pages of the TH.
The alternative that proponents propose is to allow local governments to post these notices on their own websites.
At least three bills were introduced in the Iowa Legislature this year that would allow just that. All three, thankfully, fizzled. But yet another measure remains in the works.
When was the last time you visited a government website, just to check it out and see what’s going on? And if you have done it a time or two, how willing are you to do this every week or so — and, if necessary, do it for your municipality, and your county and your school district?
For government officials wanting to conduct business with the least amount of public attention, we can’t think of any better way — short of concealing the information entirely — than posting it on government websites.
The argument for moving public notices to government websites is about two things: cost savings for local government, and (allegedly) accessibility. Proponents suggest government websites are accessible to anyone, while not everyone subscribes to a newspaper.
Here’s the thing: State newspaper associations — including those of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin — aggregate their members’ public notices on statewide websites — at no additional charge. So, for those who want to access legals online, there already exists a means.
As for cost, it’s true that newspapers are paid for placing those notices — and, yes, the Telegraph Herald and other “legal” newspapers have a stake in this issue — but the rates are set by law and, we assure you, are artificially low. With the exception of some very small publications, no newspaper’s survival depends on retaining legal notices.
How much of a financial burden are public notices to local governments (and taxpayers)? A few years back, an Iowa Newspaper Association survey showed that local governments spend about one-twentieth of 1% of their budgets on public notices. Entities needing to cut spending won’t find much savings there.
And the nominal savings would come at the expense of transparency and public accountability. In Iowa, where internet connectivity can be an issue, some rural citizens would have virtually no access. How many older residents who have no computer or internet service are going to find a way to see this key government information?
Today marks the start of Sunshine Week, a week set aside to honor the commitment to accessible government and the public’s right to know. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, offered his remarks on Sunshine Week, saying: “I’ve found sunlight deters wrongdoing and strengthens the public trust between the taxpayer and those who hold the purse strings. Secrecy breeds distrust. Conducting the people’s business behind closed doors erodes the public trust. Transparency brings accountability.”
We couldn’t agree more. Citizens who want to retain the convenience and accountability that public notices in their local newspaper provide should tell their state legislators so.