Archive for Thursday, December 14, 2006

Guest editorial: Open Government

December 14, 2006

"I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

Ever heard that one? Of course you have. We hear it often as elected and appointed officials alike tell us they have a better idea about how to deliver governmental services to the citizens of our state and nation.

You're about to receive a huge dose of this snake oil from some of them about their idea to move public notice from the trusted, independent and printed pages of the state's newspapers to a governmental Web site controlled by them.

They'll boast this new idea will save taxpayers money, that it will make more of what government does accessible to the masses and that it will do a better job of keeping you informed about what your government officials are doing.

Don't believe them for a minute.

For one thing, this idea about switching publication to a government-controlled Web site is not new; it's been around since the advent of the Internet. And the arguments against such a move are still just as valid today, which indicates why not a single state in the union has seen fit to do it.

Why, you might ask, should public notice continue to appear in newspapers?

First and foremost because government officials can never be allowed to be in control of their own information. They are not independent and, therefore, they cannot be entrusted with such power.

In many communities, government officials already make it difficult for the public to participate in the political process by denying access to public records and public meetings. It would only get worse if they exerted even more control of the information dissemination process.

Newspapers work because they are independently owned and operated, are printed on permanent newsprint that cannot be hacked and manipulated or become temporarily unavailable because of computer problems, power surges or crashed servers.

Second, newspapers are a far more effective medium for reaching the public, and survey after survey indicates that's exactly where the public wants to find public notices.

Newspapers are required to demonstrate readership by providing records of paid subscribers, maintaining postal permits or submitting to outside subscription audits.

Newspapers also are more accessible to the public than the Internet, so those without access to computers or the Internet will be left out of the loop; others simply cannot afford the cost of monthly Internet access, which is only available to two out of every three Americans -- and the figure is much lower in a number of states, including Kansas.

Third, keeping public notices in newspapers and not placing them on the Internet is important because the Internet is highly unreliable as a stable source of information and government agencies cannot ensure that information located on a server is secure.

Government Computer News says hackers find government Web sites particularly irresistible because states and local governments generally neglect to focus on network security.

Finally, how do you prove "notice" took place on an Internet site? It's virtually impossible. On the other hand, newspapers serve as a verifiable and authentic record of publication, and publishers provide sworn affidavits and tearsheets to prove the public notice was printed as submitted. Even years later, if claims are filed, a newspaper's files still contain the printed public notice as it originally appeared.

The taxpayer-funded lobbyists will be busy in Topeka beginning in January. There will be hundreds of them walking the halls of the Kansas Legislature, using your hard-earned taxes to convince legislators to cut back or eliminate the requirements for public notice.

If they can't eliminate them altogether, or move them to a government-controlled Web site, they'll try to abbreviate the notice in your newspaper to a simple reference to where you can find the entire public notice at some Web site.

In other words, they're going to make you work hard to find information or keep tabs on your elected officials rather than printing it right there in the newspaper where you have become accustomed to seeing it.

Local newspapers present public notices to citizens right there with other information about their communities -- from coverage of city council, county commission and school board meetings to coverage of the high school debate team or the local football or basketball game.

Simply put, public notices belong in your local newspaper, where everybody can see them. They should never be allowed to be hidden away, among millions upon millions of Web sites, on the Internet.

This is your government. Make sure your legislator knows how you feel about this plan to make it more difficult to keep tabs on what your elected and appointed officials are doing.

Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association, which has 235 member newspapers from across the state.

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