This week your government is considering legislation designed to make it more difficult for you to find out what they are doing with your tax dollars.
House Bill 2237 has been introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives by Rep. J.R. Claeys of Salina to 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.
It is proposed at least in part because of the financial crunch that has occurred in the past couple of years in state government in an effort to try to help local governments save a few dollars because budget cuts at the state level are going to be passed down to local taxpayers.
Another factor is that there is great animosity toward newspapers this year following the election of 2014. Richard Gannon, a press association government representative, says he’s never seen anything like it, and reporters who cover the Statehouse say the atmosphere is more toxic than ever. While we believe this animosity is aimed at the larger newspapers that take strong editorial stands on state issues and aggressively cover the news, we know the real victims of such a move would be smaller, community newspapers and the readers who depend on them for news about their local government, high school sports teams and other local community activities.
To be entirely honest, small community newspapers do stand to lose some money if this legislation passes. In Parsons, that could amount to a few thousand dollars annually.
But there are several other reasons why this bill is not in the best interests of community newspapers or their readers. Among them:
— Access to the information is not as readily available on the Internet, despite misconceptions. Consider the incredible cost to our citizens of having to maintain Internet at their home or pay for a data connection on their phone to access the Internet. Many citizens may not be able to afford the monthly Internet cable fees or the cell phone data fees that they have to have to be able to effectively access the Internet. If the notices appear only on the Internet there will be a large percentage of our older rural citizens on fixed incomes who have no easy access to the Internet so they will likely miss the notices.
— Public notices should be published by a neutral and independent party. Most citizens would agree that government officials should never be allowed to be in control of their own information. Newspapers provide independence from government and, therefore, are reliable as a source of information.
— Newspapers provide a permanent record that cannot be altered, hidden, manipulated, hacked or changed after the fact. When a notice is published in a newspaper, it is guaranteed by the publisher as fact. Who knows if a notice really appeared when it should on a website?
— Newspaper publication provides a verifiable public record through sworn affidavits of publication that have been accepted for decades as adequate notice in a court of law. If you give notice that a subdivision is going to encroach on neighbors, you certainly don’t want to have to revisit this decision at some future date because notice was messed up. The Internet has not devised a method for certifying that notice has occurred.
— Newspapers ensure that readers will “happen upon” public notices and share that information with each other.
— Study after study over the past 20 years has concluded that readers want their public notices in newspapers because that’s where they are most likely to see them.
— The Internet has proven itself time and again to be an unreliable source of information. In fact, studies indicate the Internet does not engender trust from citizens looking for information, while newspapers rate high in believability.
— The Internet, it is argued, is just as efficient a notifying device and by publishing on the website of the unit of government, costs of publishing can be reduced. That may be true, but it doesn’t appear to have been cost-analyzed: What are the costs of maintaining a website, updating each posting and maintaining a secure website that cannot be hacked into and changed? The cost of maintaining the notices online could cancel or outweigh any anticipated savings. In fact, Utah legislators voted to put notices on the web, only to rescind that decision at the urging of cities and counties that could not accurately upload their notice and maintain their sites in working order.
Citizens who want any degree of transparency in local and regional government should contact their legislators and strongly oppose the bill and point out the danger both to transparency and, in some communities smaller than Parsons, 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 the very small papers in danger of closing their doors or drastically curtailing their operations.
The legislation also places more of a financial burden on the taxpayer. Under the guise of reducing government spending by eliminating the need to pay for the publication of legal notices, the government is actually allowing the cost to trickle down to the individual taxpayer who will now have to own a computer and purchase Internet access to read ordinances and resolutions passed by city commissions and county commissions.
Our state and local governments already use the “executive session” privilege quite often as an excuse to conduct the public’s business in private. This proposed bill makes it considerably easier for those agencies and boards to take actions that concern the public without many of their constituents having access to those actions, especially those who have no Internet access or cannot afford to purchase Internet access. Taking that into consideration, it would not be that much of a stretch to say the proposed legislation discriminates against lower income and rural citizens who may not have computer or Internet access.
Call your representative today and let them know you oppose the public notice bill, and they should be making it easier to let the public know what they are doing, not more difficult and expensive. The main area representatives are Rep. Richard Proehl, Parsons, (785) 296-7639, and Rep. Adam Lusker, Frontenac, (785) 296-7698.
Also, these are the names and numbers of the members of the committee that will decide whether or not to bring this bill to the floor of the House for a vote:
Rep. Steve Hubert, Valley Center, chair (785) 296-1754
Rep. Tom Phillips, Manhattan, vice chair (785) 296-6014
Rep. John Alcala, Topeka, ranking minority member (785) 296-7371
Rep. Larry Campbell, Olathe, (785) 296-7632
Rep. John Carmichael, Wichita, (785) 296-7650
Rep. Pam Curtis, Kansas City, (785) 296-7371
Rep. Keith Esau, Olathe, (785) 296-7688
Rep. Shannon Francis, Liberal, (785) 296-7655
Rep. Michael Houser, Columbus, (785) 296-7679
Rep. Mike Kiegerl, Olathe, (785) 296-7636
Rep. Virgil Peck, Tyro, (785) 296-7641
Rep. John Whitmer, Wichita, (785) 296-7567
Rep. Kristey Williams, Augusta, (785) 296-3971