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Public access should be protected

My Opinion
Chris Adams, Clarion News Editor

It was a year ago that I wrote about a couple of proposed bills that would have threatened the public’s easy access to information by allowing government units to place public notices on the Internet instead of in their local newspapers. While those bills went nowhere, similar pieces of legislation have been introduced this session.
This time, unfortunately, the public may not be as fortunate. The proposed legislation ‘ Senate Bill 367 by a 44-4 vote and House Bill 1266 by an 82-12 vote ‘ easily cleared their originating chamber.
SB 367 (authored by State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek) and HB 1266 (authored by State Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington) include language that would no longer require local governments to publish proposed budgets as part of the notice of the budget hearing. Such hearings are vital because they provide the public an opportunity to address concerns they have about the proposed budget and tax rates.
Without easy access to the proposed budgets, it is difficult for residents to raise concerns. Let’s hope that isn’t the point. Yet, at a time when the public’s trust of government is at a low, is it a good idea for government to become less transparent?
Yes, public notices can be put on the Internet, but, as I wrote a year ago, when a House bill co-authored by Harrison County’s Rhonda Rhoads would have removed the requirement that school corporations must publish an annual financial report, the question isn’t whether that information would be accessible. The question is, would it be easily accessible.
For many, the answer would be no.
Because of work schedules and other demands, not everybody can drive to the school administration office or courthouse to get a copy of the proposed budget. Plus, while more people have Internet service than ever before, not everyone does. They may live in an area where it isn’t available, cannot afford it (after all, the state’s unemployment rate, according to the Indiana Dept. of Workforce Development, still stood at 6.9 percent in December), or simply don’t want it.
Yes, those people can use the computers at the public library, but, again, work schedules, family demands and finances may prevent them from doing so easily. If you doubt that there are people who can’t even afford the gas it would take, stop by one of our area food banks sometime.
Many of the government meetings we cover are not heavily attended. It is not because people don’t care about what is going on. Instead, it is because they are busy with life: working, spending time with their children, going to class and volunteering with various groups. They rely on us ‘ their newspaper ‘ to catch them up on what they missed.
However, even if they didn’t care about what is happening in their community, that doesn’t change the fact that information published in public notices ‘ information that lawmakers long ago deemed important ‘ should be easily accessible.
In most issues, we give our local state lawmakers space to update their constituents on important matters. We are glad to do so. However, if they believe those updates are valuable enough that they should be easily accessible in the local newspaper, shouldn’t the details of a proposed budget and other information currently published in public notices be just as accessible?
Be sure to tell your local state lawmakers that the next time you see them. Better yet, give them a call. To reach members of the House of Representatives, call 1-812-232-9600 or toll-free 1-800-382-9841. For members of the State Senate, call 1-317-232-9400 or toll-free 1-800-382-9467.

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