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Editorial: Government is trying to hide from you

public-noticeGov. Scott Walker has called for elimination of many public and legal notices in his recently proposed budget. The argument he and supporters make is something along the lines of: What’s so wrong about letting the fox guard the henhouse if the fox has been declawed, given his shots and generally taught to behave like a “good boy?”

They would have us believe Wisconsin’s public-notice laws aren’t needed because the vast majority of government officials are honest and hard-working stewards of public resources.

We have no reason to doubt this usually is the case. But they might as well be arguing that we should abolish shoplifting laws because the vast majority of shoppers have every intention of paying for the things they plan to take home.

Clearly, laws are not meant for people who go about their daily business with no malicious designs on the property or safety of others. Their real goal is to protect the majority of us from the few bad apples who, although small in number, can often inflict harm far beyond what we naively dreamed possible simply by taking advantage of our general willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Public-notice laws serve a similar purpose. They show transparency of our local government. Even if it is true that most government officials can be safely trusted to do their work buried somewhere deep in a cave far away from the prying eyes of the public, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can just sit back and not be informed of it.

For, as noted above, all it takes is one unscrupulous office holder who dips into the public treasury, one politician looking to bolster his campaign coffers with bribes and kickbacks, one public-works official who wants to steer a government contract to a company owned by a friend or relative, for this trust to seem entirely misplaced.

How can public-notice laws prevent abuses of this sort? By giving the public a window looking down directly on the government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Some will argue that public notices and newspapers are mismatched. Newspaper circulation is falling. And of the people who do still read newspapers, few really take much interest in public notices.

While there is a bit of truth to some of these contentions, it’s also true that the current public-notice laws ensure that anyone who is interested in this sort of information can find it in a known place and in an unaltered form, including being housed on the Wisconsin Newspaper Association website in an easy-to-find format. These are the very same people who are most likely to blow the whistle when something is amiss.

Although the general public might not really care if a certain government project wasn’t put out to bid, contractors do care. Although most people might be indifferent to questions concerning the proper sale of government-owned properties, developers are not. Although a new law might be of little concern to most residents of a particularly city, the groups that are directly affected will almost certainly have something to say. The list goes on and on.

In proposing to let government officials in Wisconsin simply post certain public notices to their own websites, Walker has made much of what he expects will be the resulting savings. What he cannot put a number on is how much these laws, through the prevention of abuses, have actually saved taxpayers. Plus, the costs are a very small percentage of the overall budget.

It’s true that newspapers — this one included — have a financial interest in keeping public-notice requirements around. This is at a rate dictated and negotiated under regular rates by the government. And if the goal is to save money, allowing governments to simply post notices on their own sites is not the answer, as there is a cost to that as well.

Better to seek out some sort of third-party entity with no interest in the actual content of public notices other than to make sure they are accurately reproduced for public consumption. This is the invaluable service newspapers have provided for well over a century.

It would be foolhardy to make rash changes now. Those who do risk finding out that the fox they’ve supposedly taught to be a “good boy” is instead still one of the good ol’ boys.

We encourage all Wisconsin residents who believe in transparency and openness to oppose this. You have a right to see and read all that happens in your local government. Please join us and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association in fighting this proposal.

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