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Let the Sun Shine on Public Notices

By Neal Modi | February 15, 2012 | No Comments

The public has a right to know.

It’s a simple maxim that has been expressed ever since our nation’s founding. Indeed, our Founding Fathers reasoned that a government that keeps its citizens in the dark is amenable to corruption, vice, and greed.

Yet today, legislation now sitting in the General Assembly would restrict localities’ ability to publish public notices in newspapers.

HB 234, HB 623, HB 773, and HB 812, all currently awaiting vote in committee, intend to cloak the decisions of local government in secrecy. These bills propose to remove the requirement that public notices of government affairs and actions be printed in local newspapers. Rather, the legislators behind these bills (all Republican) would like such information to be found deep inside government websites.

While at first glance these proposals may be wise as they save localities money, the fact that it can diminish, if not extinguish, the public’s right to know is troublesome. If anything, it violates one of our nation’s most valued principles, one’s that regained a focus and importance after the Watergate Scandal, of open, unveiled, and transparent government.

And fortunately I am not alone in my disappointment. The Virginia Press Association (VPA), comprised of newspapers and publishers from across the state, also believe this is a u-turn in the quest for transparent government. And they are correct.

Newspapers premise themselves on their duty to present facts to their readers. Hence, their inability, as a third-party source, to release the information, as opposed to the state doing so, is a crucially important point. It is frightening, on the one hand, that the state desires to remove public notices from newspapers or community publications, yet it is even more frightful that the government wishes to publish such notices themselves.

This scrapes any semblance of objectivity and undermines the public’s right to know matters of government without the possibility of state intervention in what the public receives.

In a time when we need to restore trust to our government, including our local boards and councils, this measure does more harm to the public trust than we should allow. Beyond the fear of state manipulation, the practical concerns of websites crashing, hacking, or most realistic, the fact that not everyone has (free) access to the internet, are things to worry about, too. If the above bills pass, public notices, at times the only form of communication between government and citizenry, will not reach everyone!

It’s good to make cuts in our budget and harness the power of the internet and technology, but at what cost? Keeping the light on our public notices is a public necessity. After all, we have a duty and commitment to know the truth.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee


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