Public notice helps all keep watch on government

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A government reform commission in Virginia has recommended abolishing the 10-year-old Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council as a way to streamline government and save money.
That office was created “to make government more transparent, user-friendly and accountable” and was the model used to create the Office of Open Records Counsel in Tennessee three years ago. The Virginia office  — like our own — responds to hundreds of calls every year from government employees and citizens about freedom of information and other open government issues.
The Virginia proposal comes from the same sentiment and mindset behind efforts in Tennessee to remove public notices from independent newspapers and to shift them to city, county and state government websites. They’re talking about changes in public notice laws in Virginia, too.
They say it is to save money, but the truth of the matter in both cases is that some politicians place a low value on openness. “Transparency” is a word that looks good on campaign literature and sounds good in speeches.
The city of Chattanooga and other Tennessee cities and counties continue to push the General Assembly to let them off the hook on providing public notice despite their own data that show the cost to provide notice where citizens expect to find it is small relative to total government spending.
Chattanooga, which is mounting a push, reported to the Times Free Press that public notice spending amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its total budget.
My counterpart at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said in a recent column that “Cost is always an important factor, but the numbers don’t exist in a vacuum.”
As she correctly noted, cost must be “weighed against the public benefit.”
That’s the way Lebanon resident Beverly Sweeton sees the issue in Tennessee. In a recent letter to the editor of The Tennessean in Nashville, Sweeton wrote: “Many of us have access to PCs, iPads, etc., but not the time, knowledge or inclination to search the state website for important public notices. The expense of this is minuscule compared with the benefit of attempting to keep our government honest.”
The latest government-sponsored research in Tennessee shows that about 1.5 million Volunteer State residents don’t have a computer or access to the Internet. Nationally almost 40 percent of seniors older than 65 do not go online for information.
Some local government officials have a simple answer. Before the Montgomery County Commission voted in December to ask state lawmakers to support the change, The Leaf Chronicle in Clarksville reported that a commissioner expressed concern for constituents who don’t have a computer.
The county mayor said they could use the computers down at the public library.
That brought to mind a bill filed in the legislature last year to move public notice to county government websites.
It would have amended Tennessee’s “sunshine” law to require local governing bodies to develop a plan and procedures for electronic posting of meeting notices.
The legislation had an ironic kicker: “At least thirty (30) days prior to implementing such procedures, the local government shall publish the procedures at least once in a newspaper of general circulation in the county or municipality.”
That made the major argument against change.
Tell the public about a change in the place they are most likely to see it.
Our state Supreme Court has held that the press and free speech clause of the state Constitution contains a presumption of open government that was validated by passage of the state “sunshine” law in 1974.
The law requires that governing bodies provide “adequate public notice” of all meetings.
Left out of the discussion so far is what citizens and taxpayers think.
Are the exaggerated savings worth the loss of public confidence public opinion that polls show is lacking already in government?
Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit group of citizens, media and legal professionals. He can be reached at fgibson@tcog.info, at 615-202-2685, or at P.O. Box 22248, Nashville 37202.