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Op-Ed by Alabama Press Association
Newspapers have a long history of serving as watchdogs for their communities, holding local officials accountable and shining light on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Requiring government bodies to continue to print public notices in newspapers is a key step in ensuring that these important watchdog functions are preserved.
However, there is currently a bill in the Alabama House of Representatives that would sound a death-knell for local government transparency and accountability.
Proponents of HB106 claim government notices in Alabama should be published on government-controlled websites, instead of in newspapers, because it is easier and costs less money. But is that true?
The cost of running public notices represents a tiny fraction of the mind-boggling budgets of most local governments. And what government officials don’t talk about is the expense of designing, operating, properly maintaining, and updating those websites. If done right, the costs would erase most, if not all, of the savings from eliminating public notices in newspapers.
In truth, it’s not really the cost of public notices governments are most worried about, it’s the ability to control the dissemination of the information those notices contain. And therein lies the great concern of local newspapers throughout the state, who believe this fight is truly about transparency in government, and keeping citizens informed about what their tax dollars are supporting, and what their political leaders are doing.
Where is the accountability in HB106? There is none.
Legislators can’t guarantee the posting of public notices on government-controlled websites will be free from manipulation or abuse. Also, we know all too well that websites can be hacked, updated, altered, or deleted at any time.
The public notice process for newspapers, however, ensures the information presented is correct; requires a notice to be published for a specific amount of time; and generates an affidavit that serves as proof that the notice ran correctly.
Without the requirement of notarized affidavits, how will citizens know the notices on government-run websites ran correctly, or for the right amount of time?
Also, the public is far less likely to see a public notice on a government-run website because those sites typically have far fewer visitors than newspapers and newspaper websites.
Currently, public notices printed in newspapers have triple exposure to Alabama citizens. It begins with print – a format that cannot be changed and offers permanence. Placement in print requires the notice to be posted on the newspaper’s website and on alabamapublicnotices.com.
Those three elements offer the maximum exposure possible for public notices.
It is the job of local newspapers to serve as a check on government, not the government to check itself. If legislators were truly concerned about providing effective service to their constituents, they would leave legal notices in newspapers, which provides the transparency and accountability every Alabama citizen deserves.
Ask your local House members to consider these issues when HB106 comes up for a vote and urge them to vote “NO.”