2013-02-21 / Opinions & Commentary

Your right to know at risk

We were not surprised recently when we learned a watchdog group had issued a failing grade to Bath and Highland government Web sites. We knew those sites weren’t comprehensive, and never have been.

But we weren’t alarmed, either — we have known our elected officials and county staff to be forthcoming when asked for information by citizens.

As reported in these pages this week, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, an outstanding organization dedicated to the transparency Virginians deserve from state and local governments, did a study to see how well the commonwealth’s 134 localities fared when it came to providing county or city budgets on their own government Web sites.

Fifteen of those, including Bath and Highland, received an “F” grade because either they did not provide their budgets on the sites at all, or because those budgets were outdated or impossible to locate.

Bath and Highland budgets were not online locally, and never have been, but their reasons are understandable.

Bath has undergone a massive overhaul of its county Web site in recent months, in an effort to improve what’s provided there.

Highland’s Web site was, until recently, established and managed — voluntarily — by its zoning administrator, and county leaders have been reluctant to demand more work from him on the site, as he already bears many other important responsibilities.

But in both counties, any citizen who asks for a copy of the county budget will get it.

Both counties say they’ll look into providing their budgets online in the future, too, as their web sites evolve, and that will make it easier and more convenient for citizens. We encourage that to happen when the resources are in place.

However, under the surface of this study, there is a more important point to be addressed — what lawmakers at the state level fail to understand about small, rural governance, and the importance of the newspapers that serve those areas.

Year after year, legislators propose bills in the General Assembly that offer to give local governments an “option” to publish notices in localities’ newspapers of record. Such notices are required by law and should continue to be. The notices include information about public hearings, and things like requests for proposals for contractors to bid on government jobs in their communities. An effort to make them an option instead of a requirement happened in this session, too.

It was a close call, but the last of six such bills was defeated in the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology Monday. (Note: Our own Sen. Creigh Deeds, a member of this committee, cast one of the 10 votes to defeat it).

But even if Bath and Highland Web sites had gotten an “A” in VCOG’s study, that does not mean our citizens would use them more frequently, if at all. Why? Because it’s easier to find that information in The Recorder, and that’s where 99 percent of our residents look for it — or discover it, even if they weren’t looking.

Those state lawmakers who want to make publishing government notices “optional” in newspapers fail to understand that most people don’t have the time to go digging for that information. Some folks don’t have access to the Internet at home, even if they had the time.

Any law that makes newspaper notices optional is, frankly, discriminatory.

It discriminates against citizens who do not use computers, don’t have access to the Internet, or don’t have the time and resources required to hunt down notices online through a government system. It puts the burden of “digging” on citizens. That’s not where it belongs.

For decades, state laws have put the burden on governments to provide access to information, freely and broadly to all citizens. That’s part of what it means for your government to be transparent. Your government is spending your money, and making decisions that affect your life.

That’s why newspapers have historically been the best (and lawful) method — more citizens get their local news through newspapers than from any other source.

Virginia does not provide free, high-speed Internet access to every citizen in the commonwealth, and it can’t. Therefore, any proposal to limit access to information to Web sites of any kind should be soundly defeated now and in the future.

Currently, thanks in large measure to the efforts of VCOG, the Virginia Press Association, and lawmakers like Deeds who understand what “transparency” means, those discriminatory bills have been consistently defeated.

But don’t look for them to fade away — Virginians, especially residents of areas like ours — must keep up this fight, and remind our lawmakers that stripping or limiting your right to know flies in the face of democracy.

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