Making government transparent will always be a work in progress. The Louisiana Press Association is at the forefront of providing public notices in a variety of formats, including online portals.
But the provision of information by the government is fundamental to the process. We urge the Legislative Assembly to be careful to avoid a crash in the time-tested requirements that are fundamental to open government.
Senate Bill 322, by State Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, would allow — in the name of savings on the little money governments spend on legally required advertising — agencies to only refer readers only to a website, email address or phone number.
This is obviously problematic in a state where about a quarter of the population has no high-speed Internet access at all; others cannot afford it if it is available. But the bill also severely limits what is available to the reader upfront, information that anyone can see without having to contact authorities.
At a time when raising questions can be intimidating for the average citizen, do we want to add a barrier to knowing what’s going on – whether it’s a meeting agenda or a sale of a property by the sheriff, a rezoning or a thousand other government ways can affect people’s lives? Admit it, many governments aren’t exactly known for being good communicators.
Under the new scheme envisioned by SB322, a citizen might have to browse literally hundreds of Louisiana government websites for what is today provided in a more accessible format. Today’s system also protects governments from lawsuits where they failed to tell people about the actions; one can foresee disputes over whether the employees of an agency actually provided the information sought by an aggrieved party.
We believe that the design of the savings in the bill is also problematic. Transparency personnel and technology costs are now outsourced to information professionals; these costs will become part of government budgets without any compensating effectiveness, let alone third-party oversight of the flow of information to the population.
Legal advertising is also an economic problem for small dailies and weeklies throughout the state. For large news organizations like ours, thanks to readers and advertisers, that’s not the fringe of existence — but often it is in rural Louisiana. The term “information deserts” is no exaggeration and communities suffer when their small but vital news outlets shrink.
We like to be at the forefront of digital news distribution, but that’s not the situation with our brothers across the state in small towns and villages. Today’s system works and we should not lightly set it aside.