Under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars and keeping the public informed, some state senators are pushing a plan that could actually leave people in the dark and help officals play favorites with public contracts.
Senate Bill 419 is dubbed the "Public Notice Modernization Act," but it looks more like old-fashioned political chicanery. It's sponsored by Sen. Bob Robbins, a Mercer County Republican, with support from others including Allegheny County Sens. Jay Costa, Jim Ferlo, Wayne Fontana, Sean Logan and Jane Orie.
The measure would free local governments of the requirement to put legal advertisements in newspapers by posting them on the Internet, most likely the government's own Web site. The bill's supporters claim municipalities can save $20 million a year by nixing newspaper ads, but even if that were so, the money would be insignificant to the thousands of government units since the advertising is less than 1 percent of their expenditures.
While the change, admittedly, would take ad revenue from newspapers, the greater loss would come in citizen access to public information.
Right now the public knows to look in one place -- the local paper -- for legal notices of cities, boroughs, townships, school boards and public authorities. They know where to find legal ads for contracts up for bid, proposed zoning changes, meeting times and other government business. The public can also find notices from a variety of local governments in the same newspaper, saving the trouble of having to click through the Internet.
If the Legislature leaves such public notices for posting on government Web sites, many items will be buried, posted late or manipulated in a way that delivers a certain political outcome. How does that benefit the taxpayer?
We're not surprised that Pennsylvania associations representing county commissioners, township supervisors, school board members, city and borough leaders and municipal authority boards are four-square behind the idea. For them public notification and accountability are a chore -- and Mr. Robbins' plan would make life easy for them, at the expense of local citizens.
At the same time the senator wants legal notices to bypass newspapers and go on the Internet -- a technology many Pennsylvanians still do not have -- he's also pushing a bill that would let third-class cities give out more contracts without bidding. Today these cities must take bids for items or services costing $10,000 or more. His SB 318, which would lift the minimum to $25,000, is part of a 16-bill package that would raise bid limit thresholds for various levels of government.
That step is questionable, perhaps even outrageous, in a state rife with public corruption. So consider the source and the context for Mr. Robbins' plan to "modernize" how local government should inform its citizens of official notices.
The Internet advertising bill was passed in the Senate Local Government Committee, but it deserves defeat on the floor. In this life, you get only what you pay for -- and by requiring local governments to place public notices in independent, generally circulated newspapers, the people are ensured of having the most reliable eye on their elected officials at work.