Editorial: Tyler bill is old news, but still badPublished 10:32pm Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Last session, state Rep. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles, introduced a bill that we as a newspaper strongly disagreed with, a bill that would allow townships to post legal notices on their own websites instead of in the local newspaper. This month, she introduced a bill that is identical to the last, warts and all.
At first glance, it may seem like newspapers are up in arms about this bill simply because it will affect our bottom lines.
At most, the Niles Daily Star and Dowagiac Daily News receive only a couple thousand dollars annually from each local township for the purposes of publishing legal notices — a paltry sum compared to the revenue we receive from local advertisers, and those dollars represent an even smaller percentage of the local townships’ budgets.
Why every single newspaper in Michigan is fighting this package of bills is because so far no alternative to posting legal notices in newspapers that has been offered is actually any better.
By posting a legal notice in a newspaper, for example about an upcoming special meeting of the supervisors, a township satisfies a legal requirement of posting notice in advance of the meeting. A newspaper is a permanent, fixed record, so that no one can dispute in the future whether or not public notice of a special meeting was made. If a township can satisfy the legal notice requirement by posting on its own website — as Tyler’s bill would allow — and someone brings a lawsuit against the township saying that it held a “secret” meeting and that no notice was given, that township’s own website likely won’t stand up in court as physical, “hard” evidence that notice was given.
A single legal challenge faced by a township over the question of whether or not proper notice was given would cost far in excess of any money saved by publishing its own legal notices online. And the cost of developing and maintaining a site to post legal notices might be just as much as a township would spend to print legal notices in newspapers.
The bill, HB 4474, is part of a package of bills written and pushed each year by municipal leagues in this state and every other, and it’s defeated every year. It’s begun to become a major timewaster at the state level, as even if it were enacted, the savings across the state for every city and township would still only be slightly more than $1 million total, or about 12 cents per resident — and that’s before considering the cost of building and maintaining adequate websites and defending their use in court.
We believe accountability and transparency have no price, especially not 12 cents. We also believe that rather than fighting this battle over and over again, Tyler and the rest of the House should be focused on fiscal fixes that residents will actually notice. At the state level, the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency said on March 9 that the proposed bills would “have no state fiscal impact.” In other words, the time spent on this package of bills isn’t helping to fix our gigantic state budget deficit.
In 2009, the Michigan communities of Wayne and Trenton asked voters whether those cities should be allowed to forego newspapers and post their legal notices on their websites. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea, instead opting to keep public information in tried and true print.
The public has a right to know about everything the local governments that they pay for and live under are doing. Any attempt to curtail this by limiting the public’s ability to become informed is not only contrary to the ideals of democracy, it’s outright dangerous. When municipalities control the release of information, it creates a closed-loop system that is ripe for abuse. Certainly with the recent headlines two of our local townships have made, that’s a scary proposition for many residents. Indeed, when we’re dealing with matters that affect property values, taxes, safety and jobs, any risk of abuse is too great.