Public notices must be kept public

Published 8:47 pm Thursday, March 19, 2015

By Jim Zachary

As we recognize Sunshine Week, the public’s right to know is under assault throughout the United States.

State lawmakers are whittling away at Sunshine Laws in multiple ways, not the least of which is the effort to remove requirements to publish public notices in the place where communities are most likely to find important information they want and need to know — in the local newspaper.

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Efforts to allow local governments the option of placing required public notices on government websites or on third-party sites that bury the information result in poor, ill-advised legislation that should be viewed as a threat to and further erosion of government transparency.

The reason public notices are required for publication in newspapers is to make them available to as wide an audience as possible.

Keeping public notices public is critical.

Public notices alert the general public about bankruptcy proceedings, adoptions, foreclosures, public hearings, tax liens, local legislative proposals, zoning changes and proposed tax increases — all things the public wants and needs to know.
Burying that information on a government website would be an assault on taxpayers, and all residents.

Public notices should not be hidden in a dark corner. They should be kept out in the sunshine where they can be easily seen.

Government cannot be its own watchdog.

Newspapers have a long, important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on local government through news reporting and the publication of government notices.

Newspapers also serve as a historical record that will be looked upon by researchers now and years in the future. Much of that record is documented by public notices.

Simply placing required public notices on government-owned or -controlled websites would mean a person would have to know exactly what they’re searching for — or what keywords to use — in order to find the specific information they want to access.

The government website model effectively hides the actions of government.

Making public notices available online is important, and almost all newspapers also place the notices on local websites and statewide sites through press associations that aggregate the data.

Lawmakers should stop assaulting the principles of government transparency and work, instead, to protect the public’s right to know.

Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times and director of the Transparency Project of Georgia.