The public’s right to know shouldn’t be a burden

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Gadov. Bob McDonnell released this week 20 ways in which he wants to see the state government become less burdensome on local governments. Some of those are good ideas and should be addressed. Some, however, are simply an ongoing attempt to hide what government is doing and should be rejected.
    When it comes to having the government’s actions open to the public, any attempts to hide those actions is a step backward. That’s why including two references to the public’s right to know in the mandate proposal is not acceptable.
    The first seeks to extend the time period government bodies have to respond to Freedom of Information requests from the public. The current code requires that governments respond to a FOIA request within five business days, or request an extension. The proposal is to extend that from seven to 10 days.
    The current law gives plenty of time for most requests to be met, and if they can’t, provides for the extension. Adding to the current response time would simply provide unneeded delays, in most cases.
    A more egregious proposal, and one that is part of a broader legislative agenda, is to begin taking public notices out of newspapers, allowing governments to hide them on their own Web sites or simply post them on a public wall. This is nothing more than a way for government to hide what it is doing and should not be part of the mandate removal goals or any other legislation that flows through the General Assembly this year—or in the future.
    Such proposals would cause Virginians to read public notices less frequently. This is just fact. It would reduce the opportunity for citizens to know what’s going on in their government and could also penalize small business owners who rely on their community newspapers for notice of contracting opportunities.
    Public notices help citizens learn what their government is doing and the impact those actions will have on their lives. They deal with business and licensing matters, public meetings, zoning issues, requests for proposals, elections and other local government issues. There are ways for governments to save money—eliminating the public’s right to know is not one of those.
    In reality, governments spend very little money on public notices—about one half of one percent. That expenditure is little in comparison with the public’s right to know what is going on. In addition, if public notices were allowed to only be published on government-run Web sites, a significant segment of the population, who don't have access to a computer, could be eliminated from accessing that information altogether: 57 percent of adults over age 65, 52 percent of Hispanic-Americans and 49 percent of African-Americans.
    A recent survey by the National Newspaper Association revealed that 81 percent of survey respondents read a local newspaper on a weekly basis and about 75 percent read public notices in those newspapers. Two-thirds of those had never even visited a local government Web site.
    It’s unfortunate that these issues were included in the mandate removal goals of the governor, because there are some good ideas in there. There’s plenty the government can cut. But the public’s right to know should not be a part of that.