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Our Views: Legislators out to shade the sunshine
Bill aimed at bypassing printed legal notices is latest government effort to control information
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Follow the bill: Status of Senate Bill 186

A group acting on behalf of county commissioners is again trying to get the state’s General Assembly to make it harder for Georgia residents to keep up with what is going on in the governments they support.

Senate Bill 186 was approved by the senate’s State and Local Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday and sent to the Rules Committee for consideration. It would allow local governments to post public notices mandated by law on Internet sites they establish and control rather than having them published in a newspaper designated as the county’s legal organ.

Those pushing approval of the legislation, most notably the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, want us to believe the goal is to save money. That is not the case. The dollars involved in the discussion are minuscule compared to what governments annually spend. The intent and purpose is to take one more step toward keeping the public in the dark.

In fair disclosure, we must acknowledge this newspaper is the legal organ for Hall County and benefits financially from publication of such notices. The rate for public notices is established by state law, not by the newspaper, and is the same regardless of the paper’s size. Hall County’s general fund budget for the current year is a little over $90 million. In 2014, the expense for the publication of legal notices by the county was about $45,000.

This is not a big ticket item for local governments. Information presented at Wednesday’s committee meeting indicated that the average for about half of Georgia’s counties is less than $1,000 a year.

Legislation now pending in the Senate would allow government entities and constitutional officers the option of publishing legal notifications in the legal organ, or instead post them online on government websites. For many of those governments, the cost of personnel, website maintenance, buying and updating software and archiving systems would exceed their current costs for publication.

But again, it’s not about the money. It’s about control of, and access to, information.

If the legislation is approved and governments take advantage of this alternative, you will need Internet access to see mandated public notices such as county budgets, calls to election, grand jury presentments and bid requests for county projects. Though it may be hard for some to believe, there are still some people in our community who do not have such access. This law would leave them in the dark.

If the legislation is approved, it would create confusion over where and how the public can find such information. A county notice would be at one Internet address, a city notice somewhere else; school systems over here, airport authorities over there. And nongovernmental notices, such as foreclosures, still would appear be in the printed edition of the legal organ, at least for now.

If the legislation is approved, governments would be totally in charge of access to the information. “Sorry, the county’s server was down that week,” may become a convenient excuse for failure to notify the public of a timely event. When was the last time a newspaper serving as the legal organ for any Georgia county was unavailable for review?

If the legislation is approved, governments will need to go to great lengths to archive electronic data and maintain those archives over time to prove compliance with the state’s public notice laws. Want to challenge the validity of a government bidding process from last year? Well, the government is the repository of all that information. And we all know that electronic data can be manipulated and changed, unlike a printed copy of a newspaper which provides a truly permanent record of what was published.

This effort isn’t new. Just about every session of the legislature includes some measure discussed or introduced that would limit access to government-placed public notices by removing them from legal organs. This idea is a solution in search of a problem, a means of fixing something that isn’t broken.

The state’s current laws on publishing public notices provide the best possible means of keeping the largest number of people fully informed at a reasonable costs. For those who prefer the Internet, access to such notices is already available. Many legal organs, including The Times, post all legal notices on their own websites. In addition, all of Georgia’s legal organs post them online through a website maintained by the Georgia Press Association, at no additional charge to anyone. But those same notices are also in print, where they can’t be changed, nor their existence challenged.

For elected officials, SB 186 is a win-win. It provides the opportunity for total government control of access to mandated public information, and offers a chance to take money away from those meddlesome newspapers whose mission is to serve as watchdogs keeping an eye on those serving in public office.

The people of Georgia are smart enough to understand the self-serving intent behind such legislation and to see through the thin smokescreen in which it is being hidden. We hope our legislators have enough respect for their constituents to vote against this ill-conceived proposal if they get the opportunity to do so.

We encourage you to let your state senators and representatives know that you are not in favor of putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse when it comes to the public’s access to government information.

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