Proposed state laws imperil the public's right to know
|By Mike MacLaren|
(On May 12, the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, will conduct hearings on legislation that would end the requirement to publish governmental public notices — proposed ordinances, zoning changes and the like — in newspapers. Mike MacLaren is the executive director of the Michigan Press Association.)
That is in essence what some groups are saying as they push for “cost saving” legislation to allow the government to post notices of legal actions on government-run Web sites.
“Baseball umpires ... you can’t be serious,” you say?
I am serious; I’m also worried. You should be too. Here’s why:
Legislators say the savings these bills represent will keep police and fire crews on the street. But there are government programs that cost more than publishing these notices, such as umpires for city baseball leagues. It’s a fact: the city of Niles spends more each year for baseball umpires than for publishing its legal notices in the local newspaper.
But there’s a larger issue at stake. These public notices are legal documents. News-on-paper notices give citizens an independent, authentic and verifiable record of what their government has done. If questions arise regarding ordinances, actions or any other municipal decision, courts will not accept a copy — they want the original document as proof. This news-on-paper publication requirement was put in place to protect public and municipal officials so that there’s no question that a document had been doctored at some point in the legal process.
Requiring legal notices to be published in a venue independent of government is a form of insurance for taxpayers. How can you get unquestionable proof of the contents of a legal document from a website that can be altered with a click of a mouse, or hacked? Heck, even the Pentagon’s computers have been hacked.
Some say backups and vetting might address concerns about Web-only public notices, but doesn’t that then diminish any cost savings? If you have to invest in layers of technology to achieve “official” status, are you still saving money? There are other ways to save taxpayer dollars without putting your rights at risk, such as cutting back on baseball umpires.
When was the last time you visited your local government website? Is it something you do weekly?
By contrast, according to American Opinion Research:
• Newspapers are the No. 1 source for local/community news.
• Seventy percent of Michigan adults read a print newspaper on an average Sunday.
• Eighty-seven percent of Michigan Adults (6.7 million) read a Michigan newspaper during an average seven-day period.
• Ninety-five percent of 18-29 year-olds read a newspaper each week in Michigan.
Newspapers deliver an ongoing information stream, so that if one person misses a property-rezoning announcement, others can alert them that a nearby wooded lot could become an adult video store.
Let me be clear: Under the guise of “saving money,” this legislation will make it easier for municipalities to have special meetings and make assessments and other important decisions with nearly no knowledge or input from the community. Yes, newspapers charge to publish these notices. More often than not, they are done at cost. But without these notices, more than a few community newspapers face the specter of shutting down. So on top of posting these public notices where the public won’t notice, there may be no local paper to report on the results of the actions.
And let me be clear about something else: Government officials have thankless jobs. And most of the ones I’ve worked with are industrious and well-intentioned people. I sincerely doubt that they realized how these bills would disenfranchise the citizens they serve. But the truth is that these bills will hurt you and every other citizen in this state.
So, government officials: Thank you for all the thankless work you do. It is a lot.
And thank you for reconsidering your support of this legislation. Because the taxpayers you work for deserve better.