Archive for Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Don’t hide public notices on Internet

February 5, 2003

Do you believe in open government? Well, of course you do, and that's why city councils, school boards and county commissions in all 50 states are required by law to publish important actions where the people will see them -- in local newspapers.

But imagine, instead, that the city council suddenly decided that it no longer wanted the public to easily see what it was doing and that, from now on, you had to call City Hall and ask if anything important had happened. Or that you had to drive down to City Hall to find out. Or that you had to fire up your computer (if you have one) and go to some Web site (if you can find it) to search for just the possibility that something important is going on.

Well, that's what the taxpayer-funded lobbyists for the state's local governments are trying to do. That's right. Your tax dollars are paying lobbyists to hide public notices. They want to give city, county and school board officials the option to place (hide) these important public notices on a Web site, instead of in newspapers where they are easily seen.

They want to pass laws and hold public hearings, and then make you do all the work to find out about them. You will have no recourse except to search for this information on the Internet.

For example, if a hearing is scheduled about locating a proposed landfill near your house, you won't know about that hearing unless you are disciplined enough to search the Internet every day and just happen to discover: 1) that such a landfill proposal is even being planned, and 2) the time and place of the hearing so that you can go speak out about it.

Are you going to search the Internet every day to find out what the city council, county commission and school board are planning for your life?

Sticking a notice on a Web site does not give public notice. A Web site is a place you go to chat about your favorite sports team, to check stock prices, or even to shop. But it's not a place you go to be notified about something you aren't expecting.

If you had no idea that the new landfill was going to be built near your home, would you have learned about it if you depended on the Internet? No. And you would have missed the public hearing where you could have voiced your objections.

You see, the Internet requires you to search for information about something (like a new landfill) that you don't even know you should be looking for. That's not giving public notice. In fact, that's the opposite of giving public notice. That's making citizens do all the work to keep tabs on their elected officials.

But a public notice in your local newspaper is easily seen by you. You're informed about things that are important to you without you having to constantly go searching to see if there's any new information every day. That's why, in 1789, one of the first official acts of the First Congress ordered the Secretary of State to "publish in at least three of the public newspapers printed in the United States" every bill, order, resolution and vote.

¢ The Internet requires citizens to own computer equipment, the minimum cost of which is close to $1,000, to learn how to use the computer (unlikely for many elderly citizens), and to spend, on average, over $200 a year for access.

¢ A subscription to your local newspaper might cost $30 a year, and you don't have to own a computer to read it.

¢ The Internet is an unstable medium for these vital public notices. You've heard all about computer systems crashing, "worms" and viruses infecting Web sites. Indeed, what is "posted" on the Internet one day may not be there the next! Hackers alter the content of government Web pages on a regular basis. And constant hardware and software changes make archiving these notices unreliable.

But access to and archiving of newspapers present no such problems. And no hacker is going to fiddle with your personal copy of your local newspaper.

¢ The Internet offers no generally or legally accepted means of documenting readership or public awareness of public notices. The number of "hits" that a Web site counts offers little assurance that local citizens have access to public notices. Those hits could have come from Internet users anywhere in the world, not just in local Kansas communities.

A newspaper's paid subscriber files, however, are audited by the U.S. Postal Service and outside auditors. Community awareness of the public notice is assured.

¢ A government-run Web site simply does not attract many visitors. It is outside the mainstream of community information and news flow.

But local newspapers present public notices to citizens amid a broad array of important information about their communities -- from news reports on city council meetings to coverage of the high school football game.

Public notices belong in your local newspaper, where everybody can see them. They should not be hidden away, among millions of Web sites, on the Internet. That is not giving public notice to the people.

(Written by John Lewis, publisher, The Legal Record, Olathe.)

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