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Our Thoughts: Where's the transparency?
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The Association County Commissioners of Georgia is once again trying to get the state’s General Assembly to make it harder for Georgia’s residents to keep up with what is going on in the governments they support.

Senate Bill 186 was approved by the senate’s State and Local Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday and sent to the Rules Committee for consideration. It would allow local governments to post public notices mandated by law on internet sites established and controlled by the government rather than having them published in a newspaper designated as the county’s legal organ.

Those pushing approval of the legislation, most notably the state’s county commission association, want us to believe that they do so as a means of saving money. That is not the case. The dollars involved in the discussion are minuscule in relation to what governments annually spend. The intent and purpose is to take one more step to keep the public in the dark.

In fair disclosure, we must acknowledge that this newspaper in the legal organ for the county and benefits financially from the publication of such notices. The rate for public notices is established by state law, not by the newspaper, and is the same regardless of the size of a newspaper. The Newton County government’s general fund budget for the year 2014 is $47,723,897 million. In 2014, the expense for the publication of legal notices by the county was about $4,000.
This is not a big ticket item for local governments. Information presented at Wednesday’s committee meeting indicated that the average for about half of Georgia’s counties is less than $1,000 a year.

The legislation now pending in the senate would allow government entities and constitutional officers the option of publishing legal notifications in the legal organ, or posting them online on government web sites. For many of those governments, the cost of personnel, web site maintenance, buying and updating software, and archiving systems will exceed their current cost of publication.

But again, it’s not about the money. It’s about control of, and access to, information.

If the legislation is approved and governments take advantage of the alternative, you will have to have internet access to see mandated public notices such as county budgets, calls to election, grand jury presentments, and bid requests for county projects. Though it may be hard for some to believe, there are still those in our community who do not have such access. The law would leave them in the dark.

If the legislation is approved, there will be total confusion over where and how the public can find such information. A county notice would be at one internet address, a city notice somewhere else. School systems over here, airport authorities over there. And nongovernmental notices, such as foreclosures, would still be in the printed edition of the legal organ, at least for now.

If the legislation is approved, governments would be totally in charge of access to the information. “Sorry, the county’s server was down that week,” may become a convenient excuse for failure to notify the public of a timely event. When was the last time a newspaper serving as the legal organ in any Georgia county was unavailable for review?

If the legislation is approved, governments will have to go to great lengths to be able to archive electronic data and maintain those archives over time in order to prove compliance with the state’s public notice laws. Want to challenge the validity of a government bidding process from last year? Well, the government is the repository of all that information. And we all know that electronic data can be manipulated and changed, unlike a printed copy of a newspaper which provides a truly permanent record of what was published.

This effort isn’t new. Just about every session of the Legislature sees some measure discussed or introduced which would limit access to government placed public notices by removing them from legal organs. This idea is a solution in search of a problem, a means of fixing something that isn’t broken.

The state’s current laws on publishing of public notices provide the best possible means of keeping the largest number of people truly informed at the most reasonable costs. For those who prefer, internet access to such notices is already available on our own web site in addition all of Georgia’s legal organs post them online through a web site maintained by the Georgia Press Association, at no additional charge to anyone. But those same notices are also in print, where they can’t be changed, nor their existence challenged.

For elected officials, SB 186 is a win-win. It provides the opportunity for total government control of access to mandated public information, and it offers a chance to take money away from those meddlesome newspapers that are always looking for ways to embarrass those serving in public office.

The people of Georgia are smart enough to understand the self-serving intent behind such legislation and to see through the thin smokescreen in which it is being hidden. We hope our legislators have enough respect for their constituents to vote against this ill-conceived proposal if they get the opportunity to do so. We encourage you to let your state senators and representatives know that you are not in favor of putting the fox in charge of the hen house when it comes to the public’s access to government information.