There’s something important you need to know — but we’re not going to tell you when to look for it. But we’ve placed this important piece of information, for your convenience, on a website you never go to. Be sure to visit our website often — because you only have a few weeks to read it before the information is gone forever.
In essence that is what HB275 would do for Alaskans: take public information and hide it away on a government website. Alaskans won’t be told when or where to look for information. Instead they’ll be required to spend a portion of their daily routine scouring websites in case there is something they need to know.
Some lawmakers in the House think they’re doing the public a service by no longer requiring municipalities to publicize foreclosures, redemptions and millage rate notices in newspapers. On Monday HB275 will go before the House, and if it gets approval Alaskans will be one step closer to either being left in the dark or required to spend a portion of their day looking for documents that may or may not exist — documents that could drastically impact their lives.
HB275 addresses two separate issues bundled together as one. The first would do away with printing of state reports and documents. The second part would change how municipalities are required to notify the public about foreclosures, redemptions and millage rates (taxes). But, according to Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who introduced the bill, foreclosures and taxes are just the beginning of what could be taken away from public view next.
Similar efforts failed in other states, and with good reason. In Virginia, lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to push through similar legislation. Finally a survey was conducted by the Virginia Press Association, which found that 94 percent of residents surveyed wanted to keep notices published in newspapers, where information was easily accessible.
Supporters of this bill tout it as a cost-saving measure, but putting information online isn’t free either. In fact, New Jersey when faced with a similar bill in 2012 found that building and maintaining a secured online website was more expensive than first thought, and the savings touted wouldn’t be there.
Government monitoring government is never a good idea. HB275 was introduced as a way to “increase public access and awareness” of state reports, but would do quite the opposite for municipal public notices. The bill doesn’t address how documents would be archived for future reference, and essentially would allow a municipality to notify itself. This gives local government far too much control in when, where and for how long these notices would be available to the public.
For now HB275, in regards to municipal notices, only covers foreclosures, redemptions and millage rates. That’s bad enough on its own, but could also be the opening of Pandora’s Box. Next could be zoning requests, property tax delinquencies, municipal meeting notices or more. If we’re not careful, an Alaskan who isn’t making a regular effort to search out this information may end up surprised when they receive a letter in the mail saying taxes have gone up — and you should have known.
Yes, newspapers of record earn revenue from these notices. But this isn’t a newspaper revenue issue — it’s a public awareness one. Newspapers’ roles are to keep communities informed of what’s happening around them. We’re watchdogs because government can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted to monitor itself. HB275 will enable local government to do just that. As recent stories have proved, residents are often surprised about the happenings inside local government — and that’s only because newspapers spend months working to track down information.
Newspapers are still the most widely read and circulated of any media or website in the communities they serve. An important distinction is to be made: just making information available to the public is different from notifying the public through mass communication efforts. We could post information in a public place, like the Perseverance Trail trailhead, but since few people go there on a regular basis it would do little good in reaching the majority of residents about changes taking place. Much like municipal websites.
The Alaska House of Representatives will give HB275 a third reading on Monday. If you want to know what’s happening in your neighborhood, call your representative and tell them you have the right to know.
Keep the light on local government. Tell your lawmaker to vote “No” on HB275.
• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include: Publisher Rustan Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, email@example.com; and Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, firstname.lastname@example.org.