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Public Right To Know in Pennsylvania under assault
April 25, 2011 - Bernard A. Oravec
A new attempt is being made in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the name of cost savings, to limit the Public's Right to Know laws. House Bill 633, in the name of “flexibility” and cost savings, authorizes state and local government to post public notices on government websites instead of newspapers. The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and Bernard A. Oravec, Publisher of The Williamsport Sun-Gazette, opposes this bill, which would cost government and taxpayers more, not less, and do great damage to transparency and government accountability. Newspapers are the most read and most reliable place for public notices; House Bill 633 would eliminate “transparency” in informing taxpayers how government plans to spend their tax dollars: • Newspapers remain the most read, most reliable place to read and establish legal proof of public notices. Here are the facts from a recent study of community newspapers conducted by the National Newspaper Association: * 81 percent of those surveyed read a local newspaper each week; * readers, on average, shared their paper with 2.36 additional readers; * three-quarters of readers read public notices in their community newspaper; and * 68 percent of readers had never visited a local government website. • In contrast, traffic on government websites is so low that in many cases it cannot be measured (see www.compete.com) Putting bids and related information on government websites alone is an invitation for cronyism and abuse. • Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 municipalities, local governments and school districts. Notices will effectively be hidden from the public, who would have to search multiple websites to find out what his or her county, township, school district, etc. is up to at any given moment. And that doesn’t even get into hacking and server problems. The “Digital Divide” is real, and a significant percentage of Pennsylvanians would be cut off if notices move to government websites. • 62 % of seniors do not use the Internet • 40 % of households with incomes under $30,000 do not use the Internet • 32% of African Americans and 36% of Hispanics do not use the Internet. Public Notices are already online, in a searchable, statewide database, courtesy of Pennsylvania newspapers – and at no cost to government or taxpayers. • Pennsylvania newspapers developed an online, statewide, searchable database for public notices, www.mypublicnotices.com over ten years ago. This site supplements the print notices that provide legal verification purposes – at no extra charge to government or taxpayers. It will cost more, not less, for government to get into the business of providing public notice to citizens. The IT costs alone would outstrip so-called “savings” from posting notices on government websites. • Public notice advertising costs comprise about one-half of one percent (or less) of local government operating expenditures, or less than $5,000 per entity per year, a figure supported by a Penn State Harrisburg survey conducted for the Local Government Commission. • Statewide, municipal costs to attempt to provide Internet access to public notices would have to increase between $5-10 million per year for development, software, training and maintenance. The Internet is not “free” to anyone. • In a recent article in The Reporter (Lansdale), we learned that Hatfield Township is considering a website upgrade to allow advertising to run on the township’s website. The estimate for the initial upgrade – not including any necessary personnel costs or website maintenance - was $7,000-$10,000. Multiply that by the number of municipalities in Pennsylvania, and website costs would start at $21 million, and skyrocket as upgrades, maintenance and personnel costs continue. CONCLUSION The facts speak for themselves – and don’t forget the potential for abuse when government controls access to its own information. The bill guts Proof of Publication to mean nothing but a government employee’s signature. Public notices are a crucial way for citizens to learn what their elected officials plan to do with their tax dollars, and public notices in newspapers provides the best, most cost-effective way of keeping voters informed. Let's face facts; most citizens, unless directly involved with a child in school or in the middle of a dispute with a specific municipalility do not regularly check government or school district web sites. Senior Citizens, concerned citizens and all taxpayers in Pennsylvania will lose if this bill passes. Stand up and Speak up for your "Right to Know" and tell your lawmakers that you oppose HB 633.
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Bernard A. Oravec, Publisher of The Williamsport Sun-Gazette newspaper opposes the State Legislature's attempts to weaken the current public "Right to Know" laws.