The state Legislature is considering measures that some lawmakers are trying to sell as a means of reforming local government, bringing it into the 21st Century and saving money.
But the legislation will not accomplish either of those goals.
The General Assembly is considering several bills that would relieve local governments from having to advertise meetings, solicitations for bids on contracts, ordinances, regulations and other business in newspapers of general circulation.
The measures would permit local governments to advertise such things by posting notices on their websites.
Maybe that seems like it would bring Pennsylvania’s antiquated patchwork of local governments into the digital age. But as with just about any effort borne of good intentions, there are unintended — or maybe intended — consequences.
In essence, this would give government control over information, something that is not healthy in a democracy. It would give government the opportunity to bury controversial proposals deep in the spider-webbed corners of its sites. It could limit local governments’ ability to cast a wide net when seeking bids for contracts.
It would create the impression that government is being less transparent at a time when trust of government, from Washington to Harrisburg to your local town hall, is at an all-time low. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a time when local governments bury public notices in their websites, probably as .pdf files that only open half the time or cause your browser to crash. It’s not like many local governments are going to take to social media to spread the word that they are looking for new trash haulers.
And even if they did, would it lead to wider dissemination of public notices?
Newspapers reach 83 percent of adults every week. Newspapers also already have fully embraced digital technology and have a searchable database of public notices, at publicnoticepa.com, provided at no cost to local governments.
Those who would miss public notices include senior citizens, farmers, the poor, the disabled and minorities. Some 22 percent of Pennsylvanians don’t have Internet access. Just 41 percent of farmers do. As much as 59 percent of the disabled population lacks Internet access in their homes.
Yes, newspapers have a vested interest in keeping these ads in their pages. But newspapers also have an interest in protecting the public trust.
And newspapers aren’t alone in opposing this measure. Among those joining in opposition are the AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
It’s not just a newspaper, or a media, issue. It is a good government issue.
The notion that it would save tax dollars is a fallacy, not factoring in the cost of establishing and maintaining a digital repository of public notices.
It may appear that the idea is to bring local government up to date. But the reality is it would be a step backwards.
If the Legislature is really interested in bringing local government into the 21st Century, maybe it should focus on property tax reform. That would benefit all Pennsylvanians and not just the few public officials inconvenienced by having to advertise what they’re doing in their local newspaper.