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Illinois public notice bill terrible for state's taxpayers
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Illinois public notice bill terrible for state's taxpayers

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There’s a movement afoot in Springfield that would cripple the public’s ability to keep track of what elected officials are doing.

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, has introduced House Bill 261 which would eliminate public notices from newspapers and allow them to be posted on government websites.

Public notices provide checks and balances that prevent governments from taking actions that impact our lives without telling us about them. Significant tax increases, annual budgets, bids for large projects, changes in local zoning, election information and new laws that are passed are just some of the actions that require a public notice.

For more than a century newspapers have been the agreed upon place where people can look for those notices. I can’t think of any other easily accessible location that makes any more sense. The process has worked well for generations.

It also makes sense because local citizens rely on newspapers to be the watchdog over elected officials and staff paid with tax dollars. These paid notices in our own newspapers often provide a tip our reporters can follow and do important local stories.

We accept that in the modern era there are many people who rely on the Internet for news instead of the printed newspaper. Newspapers in Illinois agree that these notices should also be available online.

Not only are local legal notices posted in the “Notices” section under Classifieds on Quad-Cities Online, but the state’s newspapers supported legislation passed five years ago that requires every newspaper to post all public notices on a centralized, statewide website at no additional cost to government.

PublicNoticeIllinois.com is the sole online location for every public notice published in newspapers around the state.

The proposed legislation seeks to do away with all of this. It would allow units of local government to post public notices on their own websites and not require newspaper publication. The bill would repeal the placement of public notices on one searchable statewide online database and result in public notices being scattered across more than 8,000 online locations.

Not one of you would make the effort to routinely check even the local government websites to see what your elected officials are up to. This bill takes 10 steps backward when it comes to good government. It eliminates a very important tool when it comes to helping the private sector monitor what the public sector is doing.

What’s worse, government has a terrible track record when it comes to posting information online. Over and over again it has been shown that many local governments blatantly disregard the law when it comes to these postings.

An audit by the Citizens Advocacy Center studied over 750 public body websites in Illinois. The results showed a digital disaster where local governments are required by law (5 ILCS 120/2.02, Open Meetings Act) to post information on their websites.

Only 73 percent complied with posting a basic notice of upcoming meetings. Just 57 percent complied with posting proposed meeting agendas and less than half (48 percent) complied with posting approved meeting minutes.

The results would be no different if more posting requirements were added.

One argument in favor of the bill is that it would save governments money. It is true that these notices are one of a number of revenue streams that support newspapers. But we and many other newspapers have already worked with local government to provide rates that are sometimes lower than those allowed by law and in my mind the public oversight issue far outweighs any savings that might be realized. The amount governments would save is insignificant in terms of their overall budgets.

For many newspapers in small towns across the state, public notices are a far more significant percentage of their revenue. Taking them away could result in newspapers going out of business and with them any source of local news and reporters to serve as watchdog over government.

Elsewhere it could result in fewer reporters to keep tabs on the actions of local officials and to keep residents apprised of government actions that affects their lives, jobs, schools and homes.

Every other state still requires notification of certain government actions be published in the newspaper. In 2009, Utah passed legislation to take public notices out of newspapers and in 2011 it was repealed because, just like in Illinois, local governments routinely failed to post the information online.

When local governments want to get news out to constituents, they don’t bury it somewhere on a website -- they take it to the media. We are a proven and dependable source of information that taxpayers rely on.

There are a lot of reasons this legislation is just bad public policy. We need more transparent local government, not less. State representatives and senators need to keep the actions of local government out in the open and not support this bad government proposal.

Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at rruthhart@qconline.com.

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