Public notice law doesn't need modernizing
Government of, by and for the people loses some of its potency when government makes it more difficult for the people to find out what it is doing, when and where.
That is exactly the effect that a bill currently before the Illinois House will have if it becomes law.
Under the pretext of “modernizing” public notice procedure for government meetings and other actions, House Bill 1869 would allow public bodies in Illinois to post their required notices online only. Currently, public notices must be published in local newspapers. The newspapers, following a 2010 law that they supported, publish the notices in print and online, on a site operated by the Illinois Press Association.
Backers of the bill promote it as a money-saving initiative, as it would allow local governments, school districts and various other public bodies to avoid paying for print publication. But that overlooks a few key facts.
There remains a significant segment of the population that does not have Internet access. The older and less wealthy you are, and the farther you live from a city, the less likely you are to be a regular user of the Internet.
The money-saving angle? That’s never been substantiated.
The bill would not completely excuse governments from publishing notices in print publications. They’d still have to publish the fact that they have issued a public notice. The ad in the local newspaper would give a website address where readers could go to look up the contents of the notice.
That is not exactly an invitation to participate in government and it goes against the very spirit of existing public notice law.
We see this effort for what it is: a shot at newspapers by those who want to inaccurately portray them as no longer relevant in the digital age. It’s also, whether intentionally or not, an effort to make it easier for government action to take place with as little public interference as possible
“It’s not about the number of newspaper copies that are printed. It’s about the audience that newspapers can provide,” says Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association. “Newspapers today are delivering bigger audiences than ever before.”
Local newspapers and their websites have a major advantage in keeping taxpayers informed about their government’s activities: They attract audiences that tend to be specific to their circulation area and, consequently, are more likely to be interested in the goings-on of the local school board, sanitary district or municipal council.
“When they know things are taking place, they show up at meetings, they make phone calls,” DeRossett says. That at times can make things inconvenient for the governmental body in question.
We also have a problem with the idea of giving all duties pertaining to government public notice to the government, as this bill would do. Illinois hardly has a stellar record in the area of government openness and transparency, as proven in the continued efforts to blunt the state Freedom of Information Act.
Already, every public notice published in every newspaper in Illinois is readily available at www.publicnoticeillinois.com, which is operated by the Illinois Press Association. Go to the site and you can search by county, date or key word. You can even sign up to receive automatic e-mails for specific notices as they are posted.
With nearly 7,000 taxing bodies, Illinois tops the nation in its number of government entities. (It leads runner-up Pennsylvania by more than 2,100.) If lawmakers want to save taxpayers money, they ought to look at reducing that number rather than making it easier for those bodies to operate without public scrutiny.
Copyright 2011 The State Journal-Register