Posting ordinances online doesn't always mean savings for local governments

Kansas’s experiment in allowing municipalities and counties to post new laws on Internet sites they control instead of printing them in independent publications where citizens can actually find them is proving to be as bad an idea as it sounded.

In an effort to save $36 last week, the City of Marion refused to publish the full text of a new ordinance about no-parking zones along the west sides of Elm and Locust Sts. between Main and Denver Sts. Instead of spending $84 to print the full ordinance in the same manner as has been done for nearly 150 years, it spent $48 to instead publish an “ordinance summary,” referring local citizens who are fortunate enough to have Internet access to the city’s website, where they supposedly could find the new law.

Not only did the summary fail to say where parking would not be allowed and fail to say you could get an $80 ticket for parking there, the city failed to post the full ordinance online. It was not until after the Marion County Record pointed this out to the city administrator nearly three days later that the city got around to posting the law as it had promised to do.

This is not the first time Marion County governments have forgotten to post laws mentioned in ordinance summaries. Frankly, we are growing weary of having to check to make sure they are doing their jobs. Publishing summaries requires an interaction with an independent local business, so they always remember. What they forget is to post the details online, a task for which there is no legally mandated independent check.

We knew trusting government to do something without an independent check was a bad idea when the legislature allowed it. Already municipalities across the county have had to spend or consider spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to hire out-of-county contractors to catalog their piles of ordinances, which typically are in such disarray that municipalities are unsure what laws they have or have not passed. Trusting the same people who cannot maintain ordinance archives to be responsible for publicizing ordinances was a fool’s errand.

The rationale was equally flawed. Allowing municipalities to post laws on their own websites was designed to save money. It most certainly does not.

In an effort to save $36 — less than half the cost of a single parking ticket issued under the new ordinance — the city first had to get an attorney to create a second document, an ordinance summary. Even an addled legislator knows that getting any sort of document out of an attorney for less than $36 is a challenge. Then the city had to have someone trained in Internet publishing to actually post it. And, in this case, the city administrator had to personally get involved to order that it be done.

Rather than a low-level clerk simply forwarding the newly adopted ordinance to the newspaper for publication, as has been done for more than a century, the city had to pay to create a summary, pay to post the actual ordinance, and pay to issue a frantic set of orders, reaching to the highest levels of city government, to get all this done after someone neglected to do what was required.

It doesn’t take an efficiency expert to see that the $36 “saved” was more than eaten up in added administrative costs. Meanwhile, the legality of the entire ordinance was thrown into doubt. If the newspaper had not bothered to check to see the law had actually been posted, anyone ticketed under it could have had legal grounds to challenge the ticket.

Unfortunately, this is how government functions these days. To avoid making payments to taxpaying local businesses, it creates complicated new systems that supposedly save money but actually increase the cost of doing business while lowering the level of service to the public. Rather than having a taxpaying local business provide a service with a century of tradition behind it, the government tries to do it itself and ends up hiring ever-growing numbers of staff members and out-of-county consultants in the process. It’s not about saving money. It’s about government competing — and competing poorly — with private enterprise.

Meanwhile, the arrogance and disrespect shown for the citizens that government is supposed to serve are palpable. What does government expect? Is everyone supposed to start paying for Internet access just so they can find out what laws to follow? And if they do, what’s to guarantee that government won’t forget to post the laws — or, worse yet, without checks and balances will be able to change what’s posted without any accountability? We would never suspect local officials of trying a crooked stunt like this but worry that the law, as written, could allow unscrupulous officials elsewhere in the state to do so.

We also don’t blame local officials for forgetting to post the ordinance in the first place. People make mistakes. That’s why the old system had checks and balances, with an independent publisher helping to verify that everything was done properly. Who we blame are the legislators who blew up the old system. Some may have been motivated by flawed but wishful thinking that it might save money, but many who voted with the majority did so not to save money but to punish newspapers whose editorial stances they did not always appreciate.

So what are we at the newspaper supposed to do? Refuse to publish ordinance summaries unless we can independently verify that the promises they contain about posting laws online have been kept? If so, how long do we have to continue monitoring these postings to make sure they remain online and are not changed? And who’s going to pay to reimburse us for the considerable amount of time spent doing this?

Now is the time for local governments to refuse to follow the vindictive lead of Topeka backrooms and stop cheating the public with ordinance summaries until the legislature comes to its senses and removes this dangerous and ill-advised loophole.

— ERIC MEYER

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