Saline County has been an entertaining hotbed of political intrigue this year, first firing then rehiring a flock of county officials. Its latest political shenanigans seem less entertaining and more likely to lead the entire state down an equally silly path.
By introducing legislation to allow local governments to publish official notices only on websites, Rep. J.R. Claeys has demonstrated contempt for a huge portion of mainly older and lower-income residents who don’t have internet access and turned a deaf ear to a symphony of respected research that proves citizens can’t find online what they don’t have a clue to look for.
South Dakota’s governor said it best when he vetoed similar legislation earlier this year. Without stumbling across public notices published in community newspapers, citizens rightfully skeptical of what government does would have to be eagle-eyed, scouring the internet every day on the off chance that this was the day when government is trying to sneak something through without their noticing.
Recent experiments allowing municipalities to publish full texts of ordinances online, with only reminders that they exist in print, have proved the folly of Claeys’s half-baked idea. On nearly half a dozen occasions since that experiment went into effect, this newspaper has had to call local bureaucrats and remind them to actually post online what they promised to post in unintelligibly cryptic summaries published in our papers.
Now Claeys wants to abolish even that check, all to make life easier for the same bureaucrats who allowed their own online ordinance archives to become so disorganized that they had to hire expensive, out-of-county businesses to codify them.
Imagine the chaos that will ensue if Claeys succeeds in transferring full responsibility for keeping the public informed to the same bureaucrats who couldn’t be trusted to keep their archives updated and who couldn’t remember to post full texts of ordinances without being constantly reminded by the newspapers that published experimental summaries understandable only to lawyers.
Claeys and others say they want to save government the cost of what they regard as nothing more than subsidies to local newspapers. We disagree. By law, government pays exactly what private businesses do to advertise. But even if the cost of publishing public notices were a subsidy to a local business that provided a valuable service, so what?
Claims that governments are so strapped for money that they can’t afford this rather modest investment to support local businesses ring completely hollow when the very same government agencies spend big bucks to subsidize cable channels and Wi-Fi networks, both of which sell ads in competition to hometown newspapers.
In Marion County, government has spent more on such discretionary subsidies than it has on publishing notices in newspapers. They apparently prefer to subsidize Wi-Fi networks and cable channels not because they are high tech but because they never dare report anything government doesn’t want voters to get wind of.
A few years ago, banks had to publish in community newspapers, where local customers could stumble across summaries of their balance sheets. It’s no small coincidence that shortly after stopping this is when banks began making risky decisions that turned their balance sheets upside down, requiring government bailouts.
Back when counties had to publish every check they wrote, citizens knew where their tax dollars were going and often questioned local officials about why individual payments were made. When county government “saved” the expense of publishing such lists, what it really saved was the cost of being accountable to citizens whose money they spend.
Don’t be fooled into believing this is about saving money. It’s about keeping the public so uninformed that government can do whatever it wants, without average citizens ever having a chance to question it.
State Sen. Richard Wilborn and State Reps. John Barker and Don Schroeder will be able to prove once and for all whether they stand with bureaucrats or with average citizens by how they vote on Claeys’s ill-conceived plan to keep the public in the dark.
— Eric Meyer