Breaking a broken law
Government usually is the one telling citizens when a law is broken, but this week it was an eagle-eyed citizen who unearthed the sad truth that the City of Marion had blatantly violated state statute KSA 12-3007(b)(3).
It wasn’t the first time — and probably won’t be the last — for the city to break this particular law, a half-baked idea that, even when followed, allows government to run roughshod over taxpayers’ right to know what it’s up to.
At issue is a more than century-old tradition of holding government accountable via a system of checks and balances that used to require ordinances to be published publicly, in a place where citizens could easily find them, before they took effect.
The system worked great. Not only could those of us paying the bills tell what government was doing. There also was an independent, permanent record — one that bureuacrats couldn’t go back and change whenever they felt like it.
Unfortunately, our geniuses in Topeka decided a few years back to “fix” the situation. A gang of legislators known to be opponents of real newspapers, which used to publish the ordinances, gave cities the option of publishing only summaries and posting full ordinances online.
The law required only that an ordinance be posted for seven days — somewhere, anywhere on the city’s website, even if the location was confusing and didn’t make any sense. It allowed this to happen on websites that the cities themselves control and that are not independently archived in any way. In essence, it gave the fox the keys to the henhouse and told him to behave.
Which, of course, he didn’t.
Not only have we heard reports of bureaucrats “tweaking” ordinances after they passed, substituting their own words for those elected officials approved.
Not only are bureaucrats allowed to publish summaries so vague that even a person directly impacted won’t know whether it’s worth the effort to get a computer and try to find the law among all sorts of other stuff online — provided they aren’t among the 30% with no Internet access at all.
There also is absolutely no policing of any of this. No one is charged with verifying that the full ordinance, as passed, actually was posted — which, in the case of last week’s City of Marion Ordinance 1449, “exempting certain property from restrictions related to the temporary sale or consumption of cereal malt and alcoholic beverages at a designed location,” never happened.
This one ordinance may not have been a big deal. It apparently — at least, the last time we could check on it — merely allowed beer to be sold at Saturday’s street dance.
The problem is the precedent. The City of Hillsboro published two ordinance summaries last week, as well. Hillsboro’s summaries were a lot clearer, and both ordinances ended up being published online — although it did take quite a bit of effort to find them.
It’s by no means required that municipalities publish only summaries. They can — and some, like Peabody, still do —act in the public’s interest and refuse to use this vindictive loophole aimed at newspapers and at taxpayers who might question whether they’re getting what they paid for.
Public scrutiny isn’t a bad thing. Years ago, when every city and county had to list all of the checks it wrote each month, citizens had a way to control government spending, and their questioning of various checks often put an end to wasteful practices.
Nowadays, bureaucrats see the whole process of keeping the public informed as a burden. Last week, a regional library tried to get us to publish one of its notices in type so small it was 10% smaller than the smallest line on the Jaeger reading chart that optometrists use to check our vision.
The rationale? The library system wanted to save taxpayers’ money because publication costs so much.
Truth is, for more than a decade, rates for publishing legal notices have increased less than half the rate of inflation. The same probably can’t be said for the salaries of the bureaucrats supposedly concerned about saving taxpayer money.
There’s been more than enough monkey business involving ordinance summaries to justify the legislature removing this loophole from state law and local communities from opting out of this scheme to put more money in government workers’ paychecks by targeting newspapers and the members of the taxpaying public they serve.
— ERIC MEYER