It is sort of ironic that as we near the observance of the 10 anniversary of National Sunshine Week next month we in Kansas face an assault on open government.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would change the public notice laws in Kansas to allow city, county, school district and other governmental agencies the option to publish a notice in a newspaper or on a website, most likely operated by the governing body. The state’s newspapers have battled this before and won, but now it has reared its ugly head again.
The danger is two fold – it undercuts transparency of government and it is a blow to the financial health of small newspapers and their communities. The fact is small-town newspapers provide jobs and a “meeting place” for their communities, but this bill places some of them in danger of closing their doors or drastically curtailing their operations.
This will put significant pressure on our small-town newspapers, who are already suffering economically and might not be able to absorb another hit of this magnitude. These notices are a major revenue source, if not a critical one, for small papers.
But, it is about much more than money and it tears at the very fabric of our democracy.
Rather than encourage openness of government, it will offer officials an opportunity to hide their notices on a website that very few, if any, people will ever visit.
Newspapers have been and continue to be the best place to put notices; websites are unreliable, they can be hacked (by officials themselves?) and they don’t provide the availability that newspapers provide for this kind of important information.
Why should legal notices remain in print publications? What benefits does it bring to readers vs. online?
Newspapers are permanent, while the Internet can change in a millisecond and a notice that was there before is now gone. They can be tampered with, while the printed word stands up in a court of law as proof that notification took place.
Supporters often say this would save local governments tax dollars. But, while it might save dollars in the short run, how will government communicate with citizens? The Internet? No one goes to the Internet searching for public notices and if they do, who can find them? There are hundreds of thousands of websites, and government websites get the least traffic of any of them.
Now, this is not a blanket condemnation of local governments. Locally, our officials have supported transparency, understanding the importance of the printed word.
But, sadly, their voices are few among the many.
As is clear, this is a much larger issue and impacts more than newspaper publisher. It impacts all citizens and we should all join the chorus to fight this.
It is just a bad idea.