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  • Last modified 17 days ago (Sept. 30, 2021)

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Writing’s on the wall: Your rights are at stake

Bean-counting bureaucrats bent on boosting taxpayer money away from private enterprise have conspired with expensive, loophole-seeking lawyers to once again challenge your right to know what goes on in government.

Their latest scheme, started in McPherson County and now trying to spread to Marion County, involves municipalities declaring that their websites are newspapers.

Ignore for a moment that more than one-third of county residents can’t see websites even if they want to because they don’t use the Internet.

There are huge security risks in not having official announcements recorded in permanent form by some independent group, whether it be newspapers or someone else.

If this scheme takes hold, foreign hackers who want to mess up American democracy won’t have to bother planting false rumors on social media. They’ll just hack into government websites — the way three governments in this county were hacked in the past year — and start changing laws posted there.

It’s not just hackers we have to worry about. More than once we’ve been told by municipal employees that their bureaucrat bosses have tried to get them to change things that duly elected officials have adopted without taking the changes back to the officials.

Letting government publish its own supposedly permanent records puts the fox in charge of the hen house and spreads out a huge welcome mat inviting foreign foxes to join in the fun.

It also deprives citizens of one of the most fundamental rights they possess: the right to be able to discover, without having to go out of their way, what the heck their government is doing without asking.

When this nation was founded, public notices had to be posted on courthouse doors or in town squares, where citizens regularly passing by for other reasons might notice what’s posted. That’s the idea we’ve operated under without problem for a century and a half, putting such notices in newspapers that people pay to read for other reasons. People can see what government is up to without having to know to look in some obscure book or follow some obscure link online.

The silliest part of the new scheme to have government compete with private enterprise is that it requires municipal websites to be regarded as honest-to-goodness newspapers.

Consideration last week of something called Charter Ordinance 22 made Hillsboro the beachhead in Marion County for an ongoing invasion by the forces of governmental darkness.

If its website really were a newspaper, subscribers would be clamoring to cancel their subscriptions. The site — at least this week — is very out of date. Minutes of city council meetings inexplicably end in May. Agendas for city council meetings haven’t been updated in nearly a month. When cities first were allowed to put parts of notices on websites, for two years we kept track: In 42% of the cases, they somehow forgot or the link they provided wouldn’t actually lead to what it was supposed to show.

Is this really where we want our most important tax documents and laws to be presented and preserved? Or is this just a way to punish newspapers that might dare to criticize government or to save a few pennies that undoubtedly will be swept up by bureaucrats requiring more pay and more equipment to do what newspapers have done economically for a century and a half?

Hillsboro let the beachhead be established in part because it failed to invite anyone other than bureaucrats to weigh in on the scheme. We’ve now sent council members a much longer list of reasons than you would ever have patience to read here in hope that the truth will set them free and they will rescind their action. If not, citizens will be able to overrule them by signing a petition and forcing an election. Or, just to make the lawyers even richer, there’s always the likelihood of a court challenge.

Such a challenge might have a pretty good chance to succeed. The loophole originally found in McPherson County has to do with something called home rule, which allows cities to invalidate state laws if the state doesn’t require something specific or if the state treats cities differently.

In this case, however, state law is absolutely clear about the need for all cities of all sizes to publish notices in newspapers, and it very clearly sets out — without exception — specific criteria as to what qualifies as a newspaper eligible to publish notices. It even clearly differentiates between websites and newspapers in the rare cases in which it allows web posting, which must first be summarized in a newspaper.

Yes, Hillsboro’s action, unless overturned, will cost us money. But as Hillsboro’s own city administrator admitted in presenting the scheme, it’s a tiny amount compared to what Hillsboro spends on other things, many of them far less essential than keeping the public informed.

It’s really the principle of the matter. The public has a right to know. Private enterprise has a right to exist without government competing with it. Cities shouldn’t be able to overturn any law they desire lest we suddenly find ourselves living in towns that liberalize drugs, challenge the First and Second Amendments, and interfere with our way of life.

Encourage Hillsboro to get smart and not use petty savings as an excuse to weaken democracy and private enterprise or exact revenge on critics. There’s not a government around that doesn’t spend more on outdated photocopiers, typically to out-of-town suppliers, than it does on publishing legal notices, the revenue from which helps support local news coverage.

If trends like this continue, government will be the death not only of us but also of our most cherished democratic principles.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Sept. 30, 2021

 

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