Opinion

Required legal notices is still a good policy | Editorial

A house bill dropped in the state Legislature this week that would allow school districts to cease publishing public notices for certain purposes, among them school closures, name changes and sale of surplus property.

The presumption is House Bill 2319 would save districts money.

Any supposed savings to local government is, in fact, false economy — there are hidden and very dangerous costs. In trying to save resources, school districts would curtail access to the legislative process, and ensure that fewer — rather than more — citizens know what their elected representatives are up to.

The publishing of public notices in newspapers of record dates to 1789, when the first Congress required publication of its bills, orders, resolutions and votes in at least three generally available newspapers. The founders recognized that government should not be the gatekeepers of its own information. The purpose was to require government to report its actions to citizens in a medium independent of government influence or control: the newspaper.

It was good policy then, and it remains good policy today.

Publishing legal notices in a newspaper of record ensures that decisions related to public debt, ordinances and laws, zoning, taxation and quality of life — all matters of compelling and perpetual public interest — are made with transparency. Legal notices empower the public to get involved in the process. And it contributes to a reservoir of archived material in a form that cannot be altered, changed, hacked, hidden or manipulated after the fact. This would simply not be true of notices published exclusively online.

In publishing public notices in newspapers of record, local government acknowledges that government itself carries the burden of keeping citizens informed, and that it will not shift that burden to the citizens themselves to go hunting for information.

To that end, the local, general-interest newspaper remains the vehicle with the widest reach to the widest cross-section of the community.

Not all citizens have computers, or smartphones, and not all have regular access to the web. Indeed, there are cost barriers to entry into, and participation in, today’s world of digital communication.

But anyone and everyone can at any time go down to the public library or the coffee shop, pick up the local community newspaper and find out through the public notices what their government is doing.

General-interest newspapers provide precisely what government needs most — a direct and demonstrable conduit to its citizens.

Should government take its information to the people, or should government make the people come looking for that information, through a maze of agency and departmental websites?

We believe — and we are confident Washington citizens agree —that government at all levels has an affirmative obligation to take its information to the people — to make that extra effort, to ensure that public notices are not just “available,” but also widely seen and widely read.

House Bill 2319 flouts that obligation, and it should be rejected. The Legislature had the wisdom to dismiss similar legislation in 2012, and should demonstrate that same wisdom today.

 

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