A bill has been proposed in the Illinois House of Representatives that – if passed – would significantly reduce the information available to citizens about the activities of the state’s governing bodies.
That bill – House Bill 1869 – would eliminate the publication of all public notices in newspapers in favor of placing those notices on government websites.
It’s a dangerous proposal that inevitably will inhibit citizens’ access to information that affects them.
For decades, newspapers have been the place where citizens could count on keeping up with public notices. Meeting notices, bid requests, budget and salary summaries of public bodies, estate notices, foreclosure notices, assumed name notices and public hearing notices are among the types of information that have been easily available to the public through local newspapers.
It is a system that has served our citizens well.
And even with the advent of the digital age, newspapers have acknowledged that the Internet can be a helpful addition (though not a replacement) to the time-tested newspaper publication practice. What newspapers have developed, however, is far different than what House Bill 1869 proposes. Through the Illinois Press Association’s efforts, the vast majority of the state’s newspapers – including The Leader-Union – upload their legal notices to a common website called publicnoticeillinois.com. There, the notices are searchable by location, type and date. Nothing else compares with it as a comprehensive, easily accessible site for public notices.
The success of the newspapers’ collective site has eliminated the need for the government to create an online system of its own. And, frankly, we don’t have much confidence that a government-run site would be operated satisfactorily. The proposed legislation contains no standards or requirements on how the government must post the notices, so we're not even sure how it would work.
Meanwhile, newspapers have been – and continue to be – the most accessible and credible source of information for all citizens. They still are the place citizens look for information.
And even in a time when more people than ever are connected to the Internet, there are significant segments of the population that do not have online access. For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau found just last year that one in three Americans don't have access to the Internet. Minorities and the aged are disproportionately affected – with about 45 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics not having access to the Internet. Additionally, 58 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not have access or cannot use the Internet, according to studies by the Pew Research Center.
Citizens in rural areas are far less likely to have access than their urban counterparts.
Furthermore, research shows that only 11 percent of Internet users have ever visited a local government website.
Bottom line, House Bill 1869 is an unnecessary and unsatisfactory proposal. This misguided bill will simply further cloud the already-murky waters that characterize Illinois government.
The result will be less openness, less information and more opportunities for government hanky-panky.
That is the opposite direction we need to be heading as we seek to fix all that is broken in Illinois government