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Our Opinion: Jan. 2, 2015

Beware of bill to shade public notices — Greenville (Texas) Herald-Banner

The public’s need for transparency has never been more important as government becomes more complex. Yet an effort is underway in Texas to lessen the ways of informing the public about what government at all levels is up to.

A legislative bill submitted by Texas state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford would do that by eliminating the historic requirement that government agents in Texas publish their actions and intents as public notices in newspapers and instead post them on government websites.

Public notices in newspapers are a proven, fundamental way of alerting local residents to critical government information such as tax increases, zoning changes, bond issues, contract bids and awards, and other quality-of-life matters.

Newspapers are a trusted, non-government source of this information. In addition to publishing public notices in print, newspapers post them to their websites and share them with a searchable online database maintained by the Texas Press Association.

Stickland’s bill would change that dynamic by assigning public notices to the websites of the various government entities – websites that few people know about or seldom visit. The proposal would save the money spent on newspaper public notices but sacrifice the purpose of notifying as many people as possible about government action.

A fundamental attribute of newspaper public notices are their availability to everybody, whether a person can go online or not. The idea is to make government accountable to the people who pay for the cost of government.

Newspapers have fulfilled this watchdog role since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With the advent of the digital age, newspapers remain the best source of public notices because they now also feature websites, smartphone access and other electronic means of informing the public.

Furthermore, newspapers are an independent source for reliable local information. People know the name of their local newspaper. They frequent its website. They’re comfortable with finding news there as well as in print. Far fewer people ever go to a city or county website, and they are cumbersome to use and find information.

Allowing government agencies to post notices only on their websites disenfranchises significant segments of the public — particularly in rural, poor counties — that simply don’t have reliable internet access. Posting them only online on government websites does not meet the complete requirements of the purpose of public notices.

Stickland’s legislation would sacrifice governmental transparency and accountability that newspapers and their websites offer. In a world where our government seeks to keep more and more information from us, we should not make it easier for them to do so.