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Public notice legislation subverts citizens' rights



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January 18, 2017
Editor's note: The following editorial was written by Doug Caldwell, president of the Michigan Press Association, of which Tri-City Times is a member.

Earlier this week the Michigan House of Representatives began their 99th session. The first bill introduced deals with an important issue…rolling back Michigan's income tax. The second bill introduced by Representative Rob Verheulen, R-Walker, is a replica of the bill introduced in the last two sessions by former Representative Amanda Price, R-Clark Township, that would remove ALL public notice from newspapers.

The members of the Michigan Press Association find it disconcerting that subverting citizens' rights to access information about what their government is doing is one of the first issues introduced for this legislature.

In this era of unscrupulous hacking by foreign entities it seems that depositing all the information about government activity including things like zoning, millage increases, and government takeover of personal property to the websites of the government themselves is risky at best and possibly unethical at worst.

Our Founding Fathers were so concerned and distrustful of government power that they took extraordinary measures to ensure transparency and accountability. The checks and balances provided for in the Constitution that we learned about in civics class are one such measure. A second and equally important measure is the three-legged stool of governmental accountability, the first leg of which is the proper notice of upcoming government meetings and actions. The second leg is the requirement that governments hold open meetings so that officials can be held accountable for their actions. The third leg is the Freedom of Information Act so that all people have access to government records.

These three "legs" of transparency and accountability are critical to the health of an informed democracy, and the first "leg" is under attack by some misguided government officials. Good public notice must be provided in a forum independent of the agency required to give the public notice. If not, unscrupulous officials can hide or confuse actions from the public.

These notices need to be accessible to all members of the community regardless of financial status or technical abilities. And they must also be archived in a permanent format to prevent revisions to the historical record.

Notices placed on a government website fail all these requirements. Does the entire community have the access and skills to know how and where to find this information on the internet? No, it's highly unlikely even in the most affluent communities. Would placing these notices on a government website save money? Very unlikely if all aspects are accounted for because the process requires staff to upload and maintain the records; websites require regular maintenance; and security is questionable at best. These failings are further compounded by a lack of independent oversight.

The internet can be a valuable adjunct in helping keep the public informed. That is why most newspapers now post notices on their websites at no additional charge. However, government notices must be handled like the permanent legal documents they are. Newspapers have done this for hundreds of years at minimal cost. Hiding these notices on an obscure government website fails the public and contribute to the erosion of trust in government.

Our Founding Fathers would strongly disapprove. We urge you to contact your State Representative and let them know you do too.

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