Don't hide public business

Don't hide public business

February 21st, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

Some of the most important things you can read in a newspaper are not just reporters' articles on the news of the day but legal notices about local governing bodies' upcoming meetings and other actions. Those "legals," as the ads are called, help prevent government from holding meetings or taking actions that few local residents know about. That makes legal ads vital to maintaining government transparency and to keeping the public aware of the activities -- good or bad -- of elected officials.

So it is troubling that Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has persuaded state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, to introduce a bill that would let the city and Hamilton County pull legals out of the Times Free Press and simply run them on government websites -- where they are likely to be seen by far fewer people than the number who read them in the newspaper.

Dean and Watson have usually shown wisdom and excellent judgment during their time in the General Assembly, and the Free Press has been enthusiastic in endorsing them. We continue to believe they are effective and soundly conservative lawmakers.

But we must respectfully and heartily disagree with them on this matter, because the public's right to know is on the line.

The mayor's office says a law pulling the ads out of the paper is needed to save $75,000 that the city spends annually to run the ads.

We assuredly do not deny that the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and governments at all levels are having to tighten their belts during this time of economic crisis.

But the fact is, many people do not have ready Internet access, and the paper serves as a "one-stop shop" for legal notices. That is far preferable to forcing area residents to seek out multiple websites to find out about the official actions of local governing bodies.

It is also strange that the bill in question applies exclusively to legal ads run within Hamilton County, not the rest of the state. Ironically, the Times Free Press is one of the fastest-growing newspapers in the United States, yet the bill targeting Hamilton County is being touted as a response to declining newspaper readership. As Times Free Press President Jason Taylor noted, "Readership and print circulation are at an all-time high." So clearly, removing legals from this newspaper would mean fewer, not more, area residents seeing the ads.

Some may accuse us of opposing the legislation that would pull legals out of the paper only because of the revenue that the ads generate. But the Times Free Press has vigorously and repeatedly promoted open, transparent government in the far greater number of cases where the paper has no financial stake whatsoever.

Opposing legislation to remove legals and tuck them away, little noticed by the public, on government websites is about keeping local government officials accountable to local residents.

Public business should be conducted in public view.