Column by Jim Zachary

By Jim Zachary 

With increasing frequency, state lawmakers across the country introduce bills that threaten the public's right to know. 

For example, last year in the state of Georgia a handful of lawmakers there pushed a bill that would damage the public’s ability to hold local government accountable. 

As it stood, cities and counties in that state had, for many years, been required to publish public notices for any bids or proposals that exceeded $10,000 and these lawmakers pushed to raise the threshold for requiring those public notices to $100,000 in many cases. Of course, the public knows even $10,000 is a lot of money for most  communities and $100,000 is a big chunk out of many city and county budgets.

Why would anyone not want to require such information to be published in the newspaper? Few people are naive enough to think that government officials will go beyond what they are required to do when it comes to providing public notices.

The scary thing is that the bill introduced there is not an anomaly.

Lawmakers across the country have introduced measures that would completely eliminate public notice requirements. Some of those measures would bury required pubic notices on government websites, where ordinary people would never see them. 

Our elected representatives should safeguard the public's right to know and do everything they can to make sure public notices will always be found where the public is most likely to see them, in the legal organ — the local newspaper.

When local governments place public notices in the local newspaper, the advertisements are prominently displayed in the printed editions so readers can easily find out what government is doing. In most cases, the ads are also placed online and can be searched in an easy-to-navigate.

Giving local governments the option of either placing a notice of public bids, a zoning change or a tax increase on a government website or in a newspaper has never been a good idea. They will opt for hiding the notices on obscure government sites that hardly anyone visits and which cannot be easily navigated. 

The issue is all about the public’s right to know.

Every lawmaker should be wary of any measures that would erode the public’s right to know. It is a dangerous and disturbing precedent to set. 

Every penny government spends comes from the public’s purse.

We have a right to know how and when taxpayer dollars are being spent.

Public notices should be placed where the public will notice.

On those government sites, in order to find out about government spending a person has to know exactly what they are looking for, exactly what it is called, exactly what site it was posted to and exactly when it was posted.

If a county or city is about to spend tens of thousands of dollars on some pork barrel project, for example, the community has every right and need to know and local governments should be completely transparent, especially when they are spending our money.

That’s how we keep government in check and hold elected officials accountable.

Keep the public's business public. 

 

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and editor of The Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times. He can be reached at jzachary@cnhi.com 

 

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