Local government transparency under attack

Editor’s note: The following editorial was submitted by the Alabama Press Association.
Public notices serve a crucial function in keeping residents and taxpayers informed about the activities of governments. These government notices let citizens know about impending actions that can affect their lives, property and community.
You’ve seen, and benefitted, from these public notices, which include reminders of upcoming meetings and hearings, proposed zoning and land-use changes, information on government budgets and taxes, requests for bids on government contracts and details on foreclosures and abandoned property.
For decades, public notices have been required by law to be published in local newspapers. But some members of the Alabama House of Representatives no longer think that public notices appearing in newspapers is relevant or necessary.
A bill filed by Representative Cynthia Almond from Tuscaloosa, which was approved in committee recently, would allow these notices of local governments to be posted on a website controlled by the very government public notices are designed to oversee.
And the notices would no longer be required to be published in a local newspaper.
This is the wrong move today, tomorrow and for the future.  
Currently, Alabama has a system in place that provides maximum access to public notices -- both online and in print.
Public notices printed in a newspaper are also uploaded to an independent, statewide website (AlabamaPublicNotices.com). Newspapers also publish public notices on their websites.
When their public notices are published in newspapers, government bodies can rest assured the critical information remains available to everyone in a format that has stood the test of time for accuracy and accessibility.
Why should public notices continue to be published in newspapers? The basis for doing so remains as important as ever:
• Requiring an independent, third party to publish the notices in accordance with the law helps prevent government officials from hiding information they prefer the public not to see. The government cannot be in charge of holding itself responsible.
• Publishing the notice in a newspaper ensures that the information is widely accessible to the public. Newspapers are trusted sources of information that are available to everyone, regardless of whether a person has access to the internet or not.
• A public notice must be archived in a secure and publicly available format. A public notice published in a newspaper is already archivable and accessible. This is particularly important for notices that contain information about government decisions and actions that impact individuals and communities for years to come.
• The public must be able to verify that a legal notice is not altered after being published or placed only on a website that is vulnerable to today’s hackers. In a newspaper notice, an affidavit is provided by the publisher, which can be used in an evidentiary proceeding to demonstrate that a true copy was published, as well as the exact wording that was used.
While Almond’s bill does not prohibit local government bodies from publishing public notices in newspapers, it removes the requirement for doing so, and that will most certainly result in local county and municipal governments discontinuing the publication of public notices in local newspapers.
We believe that unfettered government control of public information is a very bad idea. Government should not distribute its own public notices.
The more open and accessible government information is, the less room there will be for potential errors and possible abuse.
Tell your state representative to keep public notices where they belong – in their local newspaper.


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