Say 'No' Proposals take dead aim at public's right to know

Editor's Note: The following is an editorial by Bradley L Thompson II, President and CEO, Detroit Legal News Publishing, the parent company of the Washtenaw County Legal News.

For the better part of two years, there has been a general belt-tightening across Michigan that figures to tip the scales in ways that few inside and outside the business world could ever envisioned.

Beset by declining tax revenue, due in large measure to the real estate crisis that has turned the housing market upside down, governmental units throughout the state are chopping budgets to avoid the dreaded "red zone," the place where "dollars" and "sense" don't always meet.

Take Tuesday, Nov. 3 for example. On that date, in the cities of Ann Arbor, Trenton, and Wayne, voters will be asked to approve measures that will remove public notices from newspapers in favor of "publishing" them on their respective governmental Web sites.

The ballot initiatives would seem to make perfect sense, especially at a time when every budget dollar is a precious commodity for local governments being squeezed by higher labor costs, lower property tax revenues, and a decided dip in state and federal revenue sharing funds. But it begs the question of whether in reality it is a cheaper option than the traditional notice in a newspaper.

Web sites require continuing maintenance expense, secure firewalls, and backup systems that can test any budget. The Ann Arbor City Clerk claims that the city spent $15,000 to publish its notices in a local newspaper last year. A full cost analysis may show that this is less expensive than posting notices on an appropriate Web site. Additionally, many newspapers are now posting all public notices on their respective Web sites, thereby offering this sort of distribution at no charge to the municipalities.

But allegedly cheaper, as any seasoned shopper well knows, isn't always better, particularly when the stakes extend far beyond a mere budgetary line item. There are such matters as "governmental transparency" and a public's "right to know" that hinge in the balance.

Of course, for newspapers there also is the inescapable fact that public notices have provided a steady stream of revenue since publishing time began, in some respects supplying the bread and butter that have kept many dailies and weeklies in operation through good times and bad.

That can be said in the pursuit of full disclosure, an ideal that we hope governmental officials across the state and nation will keep in mind when considering whether to draft similar cost-saving measures as Ann Arbor, Trenton, and Wayne have done. Newspapers, after all, have been battling a full-frontal online assault for much of the past decade, taking significant hits in classified and display advertising sales while paid circulation drifts to free 24/7 news sites that are proliferating on the Internet. At the risk of sounding alarmist, some industry observers call the "Print vs. Online" battle for public notices a watershed moment for newspapers throughout the country.

Some commentators may be prone to hyperbole, but few would dismiss the notion that newspapers have served as an important vehicle for furnishing information about governmental activities that helps an electorate make well-informed decisions. It is a practice rooted in pre-Colonial times and is founded on a constitutional right of a free press. Newspapers, through news coverage and the publication of notices, help keep the public informed about the inner workings of their respective state and local governments, thereby allowing citizens to participate more fully in the democratic process.

With the advent of the Internet, many state and local governments began exploring its use as the sole vehicle for public notices, viewing its cost-saving benefits as a virtual panacea for those with computer access. Yet, as much as many would protest, not every segment of society is tied to the computer age. The cost of technology, both in terms of equipment and monthly access fees, is still a significant hurdle for those outside middle and upper income levels.

Web sites also are subject to security breaches, a point driven home recently when a Midwestern municipality suffered the costly indignity after computer hackers disabled the city's Web site for the better part of a week. What if this had been the only notice given about important meetings and contracts?

Then, of course, there is the elderly, an ever-growing population that was not raised in an online world and for various reasons has not embraced the wonders of modern technology. A shift of notices from a printed product, accessible at newsstands or by traditional carrier delivery, to a government-controlled Web site is a sure-fire way of depriving a significant segment of the electorate a voice in public affairs.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to look askance at the online ballot initiatives revolves around the risk of jeopardizing public oversight. Newspapers historically have been an independent source of news and public information, dedicated to publishing on a platform that is not controlled by any governmental entity. Community newspapers serve as watchdogs, providing a neutral, third party voice for the public, consistently publishing information that can help government stand the test of transparency.

It's a test of the pass-fail variety. The proctor, in this case, is a newspaper dedicated to the public good, serving as an independent monitor of governmental actions. Transparency is an either-or proposition. There is no gray area. No middle ground. Trusting government to always do the right thing, especially left of its own accord and when its image could be at stake, has not always been a wise course for the public to take.

Voters need look no further than the ballot issues they will face November 3 in Ann Arbor, Trenton, and Wayne. A "yes" vote means that public notices in those three cities will no longer be published in newspapers. In effect, "yes" means "no." The resulting confusion such a vote could cause may take months and years to unravel.

Instead, we recommend a strong "no" vote on November 3, hopefully sending a resounding message to governmental units across Michigan that skirting the public right to know is too high of a price to pay when it comes to budgeting.

Bradley L. Thompson II

President and CEO

Detroit Legal News

Publishing

Published: Thu, Oct 29, 2009

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