No on A: Keep City Hall transparent, residents informed
To help save thousands of dollars, the city of Rifle is asking voters to join a growing list of communities that no longer publish the full text of approved ordinances in local newspapers, such as The Citizen Telegram.
Question A on the Sept. 10 election ballot asks voters to consider a charter amendment that would change the definition of “publication” to include online and high-tech options.
The charter section pertaining to this was established in 1965 and defines “publication” to mean in a newspaper of general circulation within the city. City Attorney Jim Neu wrote in a memo to the council several months ago that changing the charter to reflect current technology would allow the City Council to determine the most effective way to inform residents, keep the city modern and meet the needs of the city into the future.
“Publishing ordinances in full in a newspaper is very costly to the city,” Neu wrote.
In a budget of millions of dollars, I find it hard to define $38,305 the city spent to publish legal notices in 2011, $24,736 last year and more than $8,000 so far this year as “very costly.” But that’s just semantics.
Along with city ordinances, legal notices the city publishes in either The Citizen Telegram or Glenwood Springs Post Independent include capital project bid and contractor settlement announcements, meetings, impending actions, election ballot questions and where our tax money is spent. Those would continue to be printed in one or both newspapers, so the savings would be smaller.
If the ballot question passes, the city would publish ordinances by title only in a newspaper of general circulation within the city, with a notice that the entire ordinance can be read on the city’s website. Those ordinances would be available for at least 60 days following final approval.
For The Citizen Telegram and Post Independent, legal notice revenue is not a big slice of the revenue pie. But, in this economy, every bit helps. Legal notices are typically the least expensive advertising in any paper, too.
The real issue here is participatory democracy and transparency concerning our city government and elected officials. Since The Citizen Telegram, along with every other newspaper in America, is woefully understaffed compared to earlier decades, not everything that is a news story becomes a printed story. So having ordinances printed in a local paper is important.
The real intent of publishing legal notices is to keep everyone, especially the common person, informed of governmental issues that may affect them or their community. It just isn’t reasonable to ask or require the common person to go City Hall, or to continually search the Internet for a specific ordinance. Not everyone has Internet access.
The common person can read the notices in the paper and spread the word when they talk to friends, family and neighbors.
When newspapers publish legal notices, they provide governments with a certificate of compliance that required public notice has occurred. This is proof, from an independent third party, that statutory requirements have been met, should the actions of a government be challenged. That oversight and compliance would be lost if the city posted ordinances only on its website. I really have a problem with the city’s 60-day minimum to look at ordinances on their website, too.
Currently, newspapers bear the burden of publication and of getting the published notices correct. If there are mistakes, people can see the errors and the corrections. If the notice doesn’t run, it is the responsibility of the newspaper. Shifting legal notices to government eliminates the checks and balances. Who is to say that an ordinance did or didn’t run when it was supposed to? It’s the fox guarding the henhouse.
Plainly put, widely disseminating legal notices is democracy in action. Posting ordinances in limited venues is little more than hiding behind a expedient loophole, as well as being penny-wise and pound foolish. Such a move does not benefit the citizens of Rifle. Vote no on ballot question A.
Two other ballot questions, B and C, should be approved by voters.
Question B would require City Council to hold annual strategic planning retreats. The city has held such gatherings for many years, and councilmembers have praised them for helping focus on yearly priorities. Vote yes.
Question C changes the date when the city manager must submit a draft budget to the City Council to comply with state budget law. Vote yes.
Mike McKibbin is the editor of The Citizen Telegram.
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