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Guest Column: The latest government takeover: public notices

April 7, 2010

Editor’s note: The following guest column was provided by the Illinois Press Association (IPA), of which The Rock River Times (TRRT) is a member. TRRT and the IPA request that you contact your elected state representatives and encourage them to strongly oppose Senate Bill 3336. If passed, SB3336 would serve to further erode transparency in state government by allowing the government to post its own public notices on its own Web site under its own terms and conditions.

By Dennis DeRossett
Illinois Press Association

Taxpayers have seen their fair share of government takeovers the past few years. The auto industry, Wall Street banks, student loans, health care—the list goes on and on. All of these takeovers originated in Washington, D.C. However, there is an ominous government takeover looming right here in Illinois, one that is not in the best interest of the citizens of Illinois.

One important piece of the foundation of our democracy is openness, or transparency, in government. Taxpayers have a right to know what their elected officials are doing and how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. Publication of public notices, or legal notices, is an important part of government reporting back to their constituents, or the citizens of Illinois.

Since before the days of Abraham Lincoln, newspapers in Illinois have served as an independent third-party conduit between taxpayers and their government for the dissemination of public notices. Important information regarding tax increases, zoning issues, fines and penalties, financial statements, court proceedings, water quality reports and much more are required by Illinois statute to be published in newspapers.

However, under a new proposal pending in Springfield, specifically Senate Bill 3336, government believes it is now OK to circumvent your right to know. They have found a better and less expensive way to “post” public notices. Their answer: a government takeover of certain public notices. That’s right, this legislation would, for the first time in the history of Illinois, allow a government body to completely bypass the taxpayers and, instead, post critical taxpayer information on their own Web site, rather than in a newspaper that is published in the government body’s area. SB3336 contains no pendent third-party verification, no certificate of publication from the newspaper that the information actually got published, and no accountability, which, unfortunately, is the way government seems to like to operate these days.

It gets even worse. This bill also makes more ominous changes specifically designed to keep you, the taxpayer, in the dark. For example, guess what was conveniently left out of the legislation? You guessed it, any frequency or time requirements that would mandate how long or how often government must post this vital information on their Web site. Under the proposed legislation, it could be 10 days, 10 hours, or even 10 minutes. It is alarming that however long the notice remains publicly available would be solely at the discretion of the public body posting its own notices.

Proponents of this legislation claim that it is narrow in its scope because it only applies to ordinances that “impose any penalty or make any appropriation.” That’s limited in scope all right—to precisely the two things that taxpayers care most about, specifically how much a fine might cost or how their tax dollars are being spent.

This proposal is the quintessential reason why government should not be allowed to report on itself and clearly demonstrates why government needs to remain transparent and not try to serve as both judge and jury in the business of public notices. Aside from the inherent conflict of interest, this legislation makes little sense for a state that is trying to rid itself of an image of pay-to-play politics, public corruption, unbridled graft and imprisoned governors.

At a time when Illinois politics and government should be more and more open and transparent, SB3336 flies in the face of accountability to citizens and taxpayers. It is important that you let your state representatives know this. Please pick up the phone and let them know that you oppose Senate Bill 3336 and any future attempts to lessen government transparency through the takeover of public notices. Public notice information should continue to be disseminated and available to the public through the traditional tried-and-true method of publication in local newspapers.

Dennis DeRossett is executive director of the Illinois Press Association. The Illinois Press Association, with headquarters in Springfield, Ill., is the largest state newspaper association in the United States with more than 500 daily and weekly newspaper members.

From the April 7-13, 2010 issue

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