GUEST OPINION: We can’t trust government to police itself

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Editor’s note: This column was written to educate during Public Notice Week in Tennessee. Many government agencies want to keep from having to publish important public notices in newspapers. The following makes the case of what citizens stand to lose if that were to happen.

Tennessee Transparancy Project
Any battle to remove required government public notices from newspapers is an assault on government transparency.

Compromising government transparency is a full-out assault on the citizens of Tennessee.

Government belongs to the governed, not the governing. The actions of government should always be out in the open.

Whether it is the passage of a city or county budget, a change in zoning ordinances or a permit application for a mining operation near a residential neighborhood, citizens have every right to know what government is up to or is about to do.

Who holds government in check?

Who protects the interests of citizens?

If our 237-year experiment has taught us anything about democracy, it has taught us government cannot be trusted to police itself.

Public notices in newspapers are one of the ways that citizens can keep an eye on their local government.

Newspapers have a long and important legacy of helping citizens keep an eye on government.

Newspapers are the place where citizens in communities throughout Tennessee look to find out not only what government is up to, but they also depend on local newspapers to publish bankruptcy information important to creditors and to property owners, foreclosures and even divorces and adoptions.

Newspapers serve as a historical record and researchers now, and years in the future, will look through newspaper archives to preserve those histories. Many of those records are found in printed public notices.

The Internet has not replaced newspapers as the leading source of information for and about communities and it will not at anytime in the near future.

Taking required public notices out of newspapers and merely posting them on government-controlled websites takes those records out of the hands of the public at-large.

A large government website of public notices throughout the state will bury important information about a community and effectively conceal the actions of local governments.

Even if a large government website is searchable, a citizen would have to know exactly what he is  searching for in order to be driven to the website and then he would have to know exactly what keywords to use in order to find the information he is  looking for.

That kind of public notice model is not in the public’s best interest.

However, with each edition, citizens buy their community newspapers to find out everything that is going on in their community.

While they are reading the news from the previous evening’s county commission meeting, or checking to see what is on the school lunch menu, or looking through the obituaries, or scanning the help-wanted ads, there they will be alerted about a permit application for new landfill or a hike in the property tax rate.

Putting the information in the location where citizens are accustomed to finding it and likely to find it, is the right thing to do for the citizens of Tennessee.

Research by the Tennessee Press Association has shown 45 percent of Tennessee households continue to bring newspapers into their homes.

The public expects to find public notices in the community newspaper, and that is exactly where the notices should stay and continue to be found.

After all, the very purpose of requiring government to place public notices is so that the notices can be public.

What could be more public than the local newspaper?

Jim Zachary is the director of the Tennessee Transparency Project (tntransparency.com). He can be contacted at zacharyjim@gmail.com.