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Wednesday, 08 May 2013 01:22

Bill would weaken newspapers as conduit for government oversight

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Haywood County commissioners weighed the merits of saving money versus government transparency this week.

State law requires counties and towns to publish notices of meetings, public hearings and contracts going out to bid in the local newspaper of record. Newspapers charge a fee to print the notices, which add up to $20,000 to $30,000 a year for Haywood County alone.

 

A bill aimed at saving those local tax dollars would let counties and towns opt out of putting notices in the paper and instead post them to a website where they could be viewed by the public.

The bill would only grant the exemption to a handful of counties in the state — a mere 10 in fact. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, inserted Haywood, Macon, Jackson and Swain counties into the bill. Any towns within those counties would also be exempt from putting public notices in the newspaper.

Haywood leaders might end up telling the state “thanks, but no thanks,” however.

“I feel like we are here to save money for the taxpayer,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. But, he added, that must be balanced against the responsibility of government to be transparent.

In rural counties like Haywood, there are still a number of people who don’t have access to Internet at home and must use the library to get online. On the other hand, anyone can subscribe to the local newspaper.

Kirkpatrick and Chairman Mark Swanger both said they would like Haywood County taken out of the bill.

“The cost savings is not so great that I feel comfortable,” Kirkpatrick said.

The rationale for printing government notices in the paper is to keep the public apprised of when elected leaders are meeting and when hearings on public policy changes are scheduled so citizens can monitor and participate in their local government.

Relegating them to a website opens the door for information to be concealed from the public. Haywood commissioners said they would never do that, but they can’t predict what future leaders might do if no one was watching.

“Do we trust a future board or other boards?” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.

The commissioners delayed an official decision on whether to have the county removed from the bill until their May 20 meeting, when they will have had more time to consider the matter. If Haywood is removed from the bill, so would the towns that lie within Haywood, meaning they would have to keep putting notices in the local newspaper as well.

Meanwhile, some town leaders in Franklin formally lodged their disapproval of the bill. The town of Franklin can’t ask directly to be removed from the bill. Since Franklin lies in Macon County, and Macon is included in the public notice exemption, it would apply to Franklin as well.

But in a symbolic gesture, the board voted 4-to-2 to send a letter to legislators saying that they plan to continue publishing notices in the local media even if the bill granting them an exemption passes. 

Alderman Bob Scott, a former newspaperman, brought the matter up for a vote.

Scott said the General Assembly would sacrifice the principles of government by the people, for the people, in the name of cost savings.

“Government is not a business that is supposed to run as a profit; government is a service,” Scott said.

Scott added that Franklin has no problem posting notices online, but he also believes counties and towns should continue printing them in newspapers as well.

Aldermen Billy Mashburn and Farrell Jamison voted against sending the letter. Jamison said he is in favor of continuing to use media to notify the public about various meetings or legal matters but was not prepared to send a letter expressing an opinion about the bill.

“We don’t really know what the bill was,” Jamison said. “I would rather send a letter when we know what we are voting against.”

 

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For more information on the bill and its potential impacts, see last week’s story: smokymountainnews.com/news/item/10227.

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