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By Mike MacLaren
Paying for baseball umpires is more important than protecting your property from foreclosure.
That is in essence what elected officials across the country are saying as they push for “cost saving” legislation to allow government to post notices of legal actions on government-run websites.
“Baseball umpires? … You can’t be serious,” you say.
I am serious; I’m also worried. You should be too. Here’s why:
Government officials say such legislation saves money that could be spent on police and fire fighters. But there are government programs that cost more than publishing these notices, such as umpires for city baseball leagues. It’s a fact: the City of Niles (MI) spends more each year for baseball umpires than for publishing legal notices in the local newspaper.
But there’s a larger issue at stake. These public notices are legal documents. News-on-paper notices give citizens an independent, authentic and verifiable record of what their government has done. If questions arise regarding ordinances, actions or any other municipal decision, courts will not accept a copy — they want the original document as proof. This news-on-paper publication requirement was put in place to protect public and municipal officials so that there’s no question that a document had been doctored.
Requiring legal notices to be published in a venue independent of government is a form of insurance for taxpayers. How can you get “beyond the shadow of doubt” proof of the contents of a legal document from a website that can be altered with a click of a mouse, or hacked? Heck, even the Pentagon’s computers have been hacked.
When was the last time you visited your local government website? Is it something you do weekly?
Newspapers deliver an ongoing information stream, so that if one person misses a property-rezoning announcement, others can alert them that a nearby wooded lot could become an adult video store.
Let me be clear: Under the guise of saving money, such “pull public notices out of a newspapers and post them on a government web site” legislation will make it easier for municipalities to have special meetings, make assessments and other important decisions with nearly no knowledge or input from the community. Yes, newspapers charge to publish these notices. More often than not, they are done at cost. But without these notices, more than a few community newspapers face the specter of shutting down. So on top of posting these public notices where the public won’t notice, there may be no local paper to report on the results of the actions.
And let me be clear about something else: government officials across the country have thankless jobs. Most of the ones I’ve worked with are industrious and well-intentioned people. I sincerely doubt that they realized how this legislation could cause a crack in the cornerstone of communities across the country. But the truth is that these bills will hurt you and every other citizen across this nation.
So, government officials: Thank you for all the thankless work you do. It is a lot.
And thank you for reconsidering your support of this legislation. Because the taxpayers you work for deserve better.
— Mike MacLaren is executive director of the Michigan Press Association in Lansing.