published Monday, May 2nd, 2011

A step in right direction

State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, have done the right thing for their constituents and all other residents of Chattanooga and Hamilton County. They delayed action on their proposed legislation that would have allowed both Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments to publish mandatory legal notices on their websites rather than in traditional and far more accessible newspapers of general circulation.

Dean and Watson effectively have tabled their proposal for the year by moving it to “summer study,” an arcane phraseology of Tennessee legislative bodies.

Whether the bill actually will be studied in the summer is moot. The truth is that the poorly conceived and politically motivated legislation is dead in the water for the remainder of the year. It could come back to life in 2012. It should not.

The proposal and similar ones introduced this year are detrimental to the public interest. They would promote secrecy in government, thereby eliminating or sharply reducing the hard-earned transparency that is vital to efficient and fair governance.

Governments here and elsewhere say that their websites are fully accessible and their use would save money. Not true.

By one estimate, Chattanooga would save an amount that represents four one-hundredths of 1 percent of the city’s budget. The cost is far outweighed by the ability of the public to quickly find and access public and legal notices.

Despite the growing popularity of websites, many people still do not use them. Indeed, many residents of Hamilton County could not do so if they desired. According to a recent survey, 32,000 households in Hamilton County do not own a computer, and about 105,000 of its residents have never looked at a government website. Those numbers strongly suggest that the mandate to print public and legal notices in newspapers is sound.

Newspapers and their associated websites are heavily read here and elsewhere. People are accustomed to seeing public and legal notices in print. Removing them would severely restrict public access to information that is vital to a free and open society.

Rep. Dean and Sen. Watson, to their credit, have come to understand that and have removed the bill from current consideration. The next step is to deep six any effort to resurrect the legislation.

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