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 state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would do that by making optional the historic requirement that local government in Texas publish their actions and intents as complete public notices in newspapers. Instead, they would post them on the state controller’s website, with a blurb in newspapers listing the controller’s web address.
Full 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 changes that dynamic by assigning local public notices to the controller’s website, which few people know about or seldom visit. The proposal might save the money spent on newspaper public notices but it would undermine the purpose of notifying as many people as possible about government action.
A fundamental attribute of newspaper public notices is 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 an obscure government website.
Allowing government agencies to post notices strictly on a state website disenfranchises significant segments of the public – particularly in rural, poor counties – that simply don’t have reliable internet access.
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.
Greenville Herald Banner