Bill raises public information issue
The Legislature is considering a bill that would let cities and counties with a population greater than 100,000 to opt out of publishing their legal notices in newspapers and rely instead on online postings to keep their constituents informed about government business.
Proponents say the change would save taxpayer dollars, arguing that the Internet is where people increasingly are turning for information anyway. Opponents fear it would limit the public's access to government information and reduce accountability.
The measure, HB 2533, comes up for another vote Monday on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives, where an earlier canvassing fell 31 votes short of passage. Three of Yuma County's four representatives voted for the bill in an earlier reading.
A related bill, HB 2483, also is going to the floor Monday. It would mandate that government notices must be published in the newspaper with the greatest circulation in the affected area, a measure some fear could pit large papers against smaller ones and end up costing more for legal advertising.
The city of Yuma has not endorsed HB 2533, said City Administrator Greg Wilkinson. However, the city has pushed for similar measures in past years.
“It would save us some money,” he said. Currently, the city, which has close to 100,000 population, spends about $129,000 a year to publish its notices.
And, he said, “I think as many, if not more, people read things online.”
Yuma County is neutral on the bill, said Administrator Robert Pickels. “We have to balance saving taxpayer money with the newspapers' need to survive.”
Yuma Sun Publisher Joni Brooks expressed dismay “that the Legislature continues to push for no accountability of government by suggesting the public would be better served with public notices online. How many websites would a person have to go to find the information they wanted?”
The most important concerns are accountability to the public, a permanent record and transparency that is timely,” she said. “Newspapers provide the solution that is tried and true, in the most timely manner.”
Brooks noted that the Yuma Sun and the Arizona Newspaper Association already publish legal notices online and have done so for years, making it easy for the public to gain access.
She urges people to call their local legislators today to ask that they vote no on HB 2483 and HB 2533 on Monday.
Previously, Reps. Juan Carlos Escamilla, Darin Mitchell and Steve Montenegro voted for HB 2533.
Rep. Lisa Otondo opposes the bill, a position she staunchly maintains. “I have a strong ‘no' vote,” she said, adding that she also fought hard against the measure in the Technology and Infrastructure Committee.
Otondo said she feels it is “really important the cities and counties do everything possible to make the public aware of what they're doing. I know it comes at a cost to the cities and counties, but my concern is for the constituents. I believe government transparency would suffer, especially in rural areas.”
One of her main concerns, she said, would the loss of third-party monitoring now provided by newspapers.
Escamilla, who was the mayor of San Luis, Ariz., before running for the Legislature, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts.
Montenegro and Mitchell continue to support the bill as written, saying that the Internet is the source people go to for information these days.
“I'm not a techie but it just seems easier,” Mitchell said. “That's how people get their information now.”
Both representatives expressed concerns that notices published in newspapers aren't always reaching a city's constituents because there have been cases of larger cities placing their notices in smaller publications outside their area that are less expensive.
“The city's constituents don't have access to them,” said Montenegro. “That defeats the purpose.”
Therefore, Mitchell and Montenegro say they support HB 2533, believing it would actually increase government transparency.
“I'm one of the main proponents of transparency in the Legislature,” said Montenegro, noting that he sponsored a bill in 2010 that now requires every government entity in the state to post on their websites their budgets, how they spend money and how they collect taxes.
He also expressed concern about the cost to cities and counties to publish their notices in newspapers, a practice, he said, “that has become a subsidy of an industry.”
Blake DeWitt, senior vice president of Western News and Info Inc., which owns several newspapers around the state, countered that newspapers duplicate all notices on their websites.
“I don't think governments have the current infrastructure to do that so they will have to add employees,” he said. “It would create more government jobs at the expense of private industry. And most of the time government doesn't post the stuff they're supposed to now.”
Furthermore, he said, “It would be the fox guarding the hen house. We would be losing the third-party oversight we have now by newspapers. It would be horrible for transparency.”
The Sunlight Foundation, a national pro-transparency group, recently released a report card for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, analyzing legislative websites to determine how quickly information could be accessed, Brooks said. Arizona received a “C” grade. The foundation also said Arizona's legislative website was difficult to use and that the legislature is not doing a great job of sharing information with the public.
“If the legislature is doing a poor job, how can they, and we, expect cities and counties to do a better job?” Brooks asked.
She also noted that the Yuma Sun hasn't raised legal rates for the city and county in many years.
Rep. Juan Carlos Escamilla
House of Representatives -District 4
Phone Number: (602) 926-5872
Rep. Lisa Otondo
House of Representatives - District 4
Phone Number: (602) 926-3002
Rep. Darin Mitchell
House of Representatives - District 13
Phone Number: (602) 926-5894
Rep. Steve Montenegro
House of Representatives - District 13
Phone Number: (602) 926-5955