Bill threatens Alaskans right to know
Week of February 19, 2014
Your right to know what’s happening in your local government and in your community is at risk.
And while it’s in a holding pattern today, that risk still is there.
First the context.
Alaska’s Legislature is tackling some daunting tasks, with a $1 billion budget shortfall and the elusive natural gas pipeline among the great whales that fill the calendar and news bites.
Beyond the huge issues are some innocent sounding, but dangerous bills that usually never gain momentum.
House Bill 275, with an innocent title, “electronic publication of certain municipal notices…” is just such a dangerous piece of legislation.
The bill reputedly would reduce paperwork, especially for Legislators who say they receive 1,000 pages of printed documents a day. But it also would allow Alaska Municipalities to move key public notices from printed newspapers to only muni websites. And to stop publishing key financial events, like changes in Mil rates (the taxes you pay to fund schools and muni operations) and real estate transactions including foreclosures.
It’s an easy sales pitch—small municipalities are scratching to save money, to do more with less staff, to find a cheaper option.
But it’s absolutely a dangerous concept attacking Alaskans’ right to know what their local government is doing.
In reality, HB 275 would directly harm the transparency of government that is at the core of our state’s and our nation’s constitutions. This legislation would also disenfranchise the significant number of elderly, lower-income and Native Alaskans who do not use the internet, whether by choice or lack of access.
As seductive as it is to claim we’re all web savvy, that every Alaskan is living online, that’s just not reality. Posting notices on a seldom-visited, website is not adequate notice.
Transactions as basic as Mil Rates and real estate foreclosures should not be hidden. HB275 provides no specifics about how or exactly where online notices would be published, but it’s a certainty they would be less available or visible to those citizens most impacted by them.
It’s also unclear who would bear liability for damages from failures in municipal-on online publication.
Printed and online newspapers still have the largest and most diverse audience statewide. With print and digital readership combined, no other medium comes close to the readership of daily and weekly newspapers—where public notices are already published. This is especially true beyond Alaska’s urban areas.
Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing.
The obligation of requiring public notice of government action goes back to the first days of our democracy.
HB275 is a threat to the public’s right to know, a right that Alaskans take very seriously.
Today the bill is back in the House Rules committee, sent back by its sponsors after concerns about the bill’s risks become obvious.
That’s a good place for it to die.
That’s good for every Alaskan.
It you’re one of those Alaskans who wants to know what your municipality is doing, let your Representatives and Senators know.
It’s your right.
— Lee Leschper
Regional Vice President