The city's current-and, for now, future-budget funk has city wonks considering some pretty drastic budget-axing measures. But one of the more loopy plans may be a city proposal to do away with the tradition of publishing public notices in what it deems the city's 'official newspaper.'
Today, May 7, the city's Rules, Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee is set to kick around a plan that only a bureaucrat's mother could love-eliminate a long-standing method that lets the public know about the public's business. And last week, the local paper most associated with the official-city-rag moniker, the San Diego Daily Transcript, shed its traditionally sedate ways and took a few swings for the Fourth Estate.
'We have debated speaking out publicly on this proposal in anticipation of an accusation of it being self-serving,' read one editorial headlined 'City bureaucrat's proposal threatens due-process protection.' The editorial continued: 'In spite of this, we do so because we feel there is an important principle at stake that is being ignored.'
That principle, says Rishi Hingoraney, has been chipped at since the mid-'90s, when cities and counties began to grouse about unfunded mandates coming down from the state level.
As executive director of the National Newspaper Association's Public Notice Resource Center, Hingoraney has watched-sometimes with no time to react-states' efforts to replace the public-noticing process with a move to put everything on the Internet.
In 1995, New Jersey lead the way by designating the Internet as the official publication source for municipalities. The Garden State was successful, Hingoraney said, 'because it kind of caught people off guard.' Utah's governor also signed legislation this year allowing certain notices to be published electronically rather than in a newspaper. Other states haven't been so successful.
The resource center, based in Arlington, Va., can rattle off a lot of reasons why switching from print to electronic media for public notices makes little sense. Cost-saving isn't an excuse, it says, and may be elusive in that, without the bidding process, advertising costs will be uncontrollable. Allowing government officials to post legal ads eliminates third-party neutrality and independent proof of publication-not to mention the potential for abuse, as in manipulating the timing of public notices.
The center also notes that Internet publishing will make readership tracking more difficult, as opposed to newspapers, which are required to provide records of subscribers and submit to external audits. And, most importantly, the public is used to looking for public notices in the newspaper, not online. They point to a Pew Research Center survey in 2000 that indicated only 13 percent of Americans access the Internet for news-most use it for e-mail only-while 63 percent read newspapers for news.
Internet publishing also unfairly disenfranchises the elderly and minorities, who access the Web less frequently. It's also unreliable in archiving histories of public notices and susceptible to hackers, the center reports.
Councilmember Donna Frye, when told of the proposal, labeled it 'nutty.'
'It's a disservice to people who don't have access to computers,' Frye said. 'I can also see where, if we were challenged on a public notice, that this could even cost us more money in lawsuits.'
Just how invasive are public notices in the political process? As the Transcript editorial points out, 'The city cannot contract bonded indebtedness, change civil service rules, sell real estate, condemn property, place a proposal on the ballot, create a park district, seize property for lack of fee payments, adopt an ordinance or do any number of things without widely publishing proper notice.
'Third-party, private-sector involvement makes it impossible for government to take these types of actions and then let the public know after the fact.'
The Transcript's second editorial, published the next day, notes that the city can't do away totally with public-notice publications required by state and federal law, and that the city proposal, endorsed by General Services Department head Ernie Anderson, talks about occasional needs to publish in community newspapers. But say goodbye, the paper adds, to the typical below-market rate afforded the city through the competitive bidding process. In essence, the cost savings will be eaten up by 'last-minute' legal-ad placements that the city is notorious for, the editorial said.
The savings to the general fund, the Transcript estimates, will be roughly 0.007 percent to go to electronic notices. So is this a money thing, or is it just another assault on the Fourth Estate? The latter, Hingoraney believes, 'but of course we'll never get them to admit that. It's just that people don't want to cut their programs, and they try to find ways that they think will save money, but it really won't.'
Seems to us that the city could cut that much just by shrinking the name of the Rules, Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee-those business cards must be huge!