The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Robin L. Quillon

May 15, 2011

Right to know in peril

‘Fox guarding the henhouse bill’ on state Legislature’s agenda

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

– Thomas Jefferson

As you read further, please keep this quote in mind.

Winding its way through the Harrisburg Legislature and aimed squarely at your right to know what is or is not happening at state and local governments is House Bill 633.

In the name of “flexibility” and cost savings, if passed, H.B. 633 would authorize state and local governments to post public notices on government websites – instead of in newspapers.

For the sake of full disclosure, this newspaper is paid for those public notices. As an example, the city of Johnstown spends $5,000 to $6,800 annually notifying the public of its activities.

As Councilman Jack Williams states below, this amount represents approximately .000639 of the city’s total operating budget.

For more than 100 years, newspapers have been the most reliable place to read and establish legal proof of public notices.

A recent National Newspaper Association community survey revealed the following:

* 81 percent of those surveyed read a local newspaper each week.

* Readers on average shared their paper with 2.36 additional readers.

* Three quarters of readers read public notices in their community newspapers.

* And 68 percent of the readers had never visited a local government website.

H.B. 633 would allow local governments to spread notices across more than 3,000 different websites. Taxpayers, business owners and contractors would not know where to look for notices that would impact their homes, businesses and communities.

I appreciate the marvelous technological advances that have enhanced our options of communicating the news. But the digital divide is still very real; 30 to 40 percent of Pennsylvanians are not on the Internet, including many seniors, minorities and low-income individuals.

H.B. 633 would disenfranchise those citizens.

What if government decided it didn’t have to tell the public about anything it was plan-ning?

Where would we stand then?

I doubt anyone would be very pleased to learn – AFTER THE FACT – that:

* A new state prison is now your neighbor.

* A windmill is now blocking your scenic view.

* A new strip mall is being built right across the street.

* Your neighborhood has been rezoned.

* A new landfill has been approved close to your home.

* A new gas or oil rig is going in the field next door.

Remember, you find out about this AFTER THE FACT.

H.B. 633 should be renamed “The fox guarding the henhouse bill.” Because if it passes, that is exactly what it will allow.

It’s not too late for you to let your elected leaders know how you feel about a bill that allows local and state governments to run roughshod over your right to know.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Robin L. Quillon is the publisher of The Tribune-Demo-crat. He can be reached at rquillon@tribdem.com.

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