PaFOIC

Opinion: Legal ad issue is disclosure

OPINION

The [Scranton] Times-Tribune

A state Senate committee has taken up a bill that would allow local and state governments to stop placing legal ads in newspapers, which is required for matters such as meeting and bid notices, polling place locations, zoning changes and so on.

Instead, governments would be allowed to post those notices on their own Web sites, which would reduce distribution of the information.

This newspaper of general circulation and others are paid by the governments to print the notices, just as the government pays other businesses for services that they provide. But statewide the cost to taxpayers is small, a fraction of 1 percent of government budgets. If publication of important government information is left to the governments themselves, the cost to open government is certain to be much higher.

Data compiled by the Internet tracking firm Compete.com show that relatively few citizens regularly visit government Web sites — especially local government Web sites. Individual visits to the Lackawanna County site during the first week of April, for example, were a fraction of this newspaper’s paid daily circulation and a minuscule fraction of that circulation combined with the number of people visiting this newspaper’s Web site in any given week.

Moreover, most small governments have spartan Web operations. A legal requirement for them to post their own legal ads would increase the cost of government, and reduce whatever savings they could hope to receive by forgoing print publication.

One of Pennsylvania’s chief demographic characteristics is a relatively high average age — the second-highest in the nation. It is well documented that computer ownership diminishes with age. And, according to 2007 census data, 30 percent of Pennsylvania households do not have Internet access.

For those who do have that access, newspapers across the state already post the legal notices as part of their own Web operations. Notices also are posted on Mypublicnotices.com at no cost to the governments. The site obtains those notices from newspapers.

Pennsylvania’s state and local governments are not well known for their transparency. Criminal scandals affecting the state Legislature and the Luzerne County courts illustrate what can happen when government operates in the dark. Removing government notices from newspapers is a surefire way to guarantee that those governments become even more opaque — a consequence far more expensive to the public than the costs of advertising the government’s business.

The bill should be defeated in the name of transparency and public disclosure.