Freshman Alabama lawmaker Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, believes he has a grand idea to save millions of dollars for Alabama taxpayers.
But the truth is that his idea of stripping public notices from newspapers and plunking them all on government websites is a direct hit to transparency.
Chalk it up to inexperience, a lack of historical knowledge, or the presumption that everyone is online and will visit government websites to ponder bids, ordinances and resolutions. They aren't. And they won't.
Sorrell, in a story published by Yellowhammer, enters office with the same old song-and-dance that government must first be responsible with the money it has before asking voters to agree to a tax increase for any purpose.
Yes, elected leaders should be responsible trustees over tax dollars. Spending money to publish tax and voter lists and other proposed actions of government is a wise and trusted investment.
However, government across the United States has one purpose – serve the people. That’s also the principle behind newspapers in holding government at all levels accountable and transparent.
We do that locally with news coverage of city and county affairs, and in paid public notices that report the details of foreclosures, tax liens, bond issues, city council ordinances and other vital civic matters.
The publication of public notices is a valuable resource for citizens and government alike. For a citizen, it is a means of keeping up with the actions of government. For government, it is a way to ensure transparency and build trust with the people it serves.
The availability and clear display of public notices through newspapers has alarmingly come under threat from government, particularly at the state level, where some lawmakers want to simply relegate the information to online publishing.
In most places, especially in Alabama, that would be a disservice to the people. Internet access is not reliable in many rural areas.
The thought of only finding public notices on government websites is disturbing, too. Many of those sites are not regularly updated like those of newspapers.
We question, too, if government would take the time or initiative to inform the public when new notices are posted.
Sorrell and others who support moving public notices from newspapers also fail to mention there are expenses involved in having a public employee input, aggregate, categorize and distribute the public notices.
The long history of publishing these notices in newspapers provides a trusted, and expected, source that residents can turn to each day. Maintaining this valued delivery system ensures transparency and keeps a sense of trust between citizens and elected leaders.
Even though public notices are posted online by newspapers, including The Times, the print editions of these legal notices remain the most reliable, trusted platform for reaching people. And, the purpose of public notices is for government to inform as many people as possible of actions or intended actions.
With the 2019 legislative session set to begin next week, we encourage all public officials to continue publishing notices in newspapers, which provides access to the highest number of citizens through both print and online.
Newspapers, through the crucial foundation of the First Amendment, take seriously their role of informing the public about important civic activities and decisions.
We encourage all government officials to join in protecting the publication of public notices in newspapers for the purpose of keeping the community informed and maintaining transparency.