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Local ordinances bill a step back for public information

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When was the last time you went to the city of Auburn’s Web site? The Placer County government Web site? Did you go there to browse, or did you have a specific question? Did you find what you’re looking for? Under Assembly Bill 715, which will be heard today by the state Senate Local Government Committee, cities and counties would be given the option to post adopted ordinances — passed laws — on their official Web sites instead of a general circulation newspaper. While this is positioned as a cost-saving measure for local government, and we applaud all attempts by government to rein in spending, there is a line between economy and effectiveness — and AB 715 crosses it. We encourage the committee to vote down this bill, and if it reaches and passes the full Assembly and Senate, we ask the governor to terminate it on arrival at his desk. Publishing adopted laws provides the community with a public record of government accountability. According to the legislative analysis, the average city spends about $5,800 per year to publish newly passed laws — and the individual votes of its elected members. That’s a relatively small price to pay to notify the public about government action. General circulation newspapers such as the Auburn Journal, Colfax Record, Loomis News, Lincoln News Messenger, Roseville Press-Tribune and Lincoln News Messenger provide deep penetration of their communities. A public notice posted in any of them will reach thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — more people than a notice on a city or county Web site. Under AB 715, average citizens likely won’t know about newly passed laws. There’s no requirement of prominence or position on the government Web site, nor a required length of time the ordinance should be posted on the site. Despite what some media indicate, community newspapers remain extremely relevant and efficient at delivering news and information. Subscribers and readers — many of whom have limited or no access to the Internet — look to the newspaper to provide them coverage of local government, and in turn look to public notices for the official records of government action. The committee’s analysis states that while the costs of publishing notices in general circulation newspapers is “small compared to their overall budgets, local officials doubt these published ordinances adequately serve the public because many newspapers that have been adjudicated by the courts as ‘newspapers of general circulation’ are not necessarily the most widely read newspapers in their communities.” The analysis then cites the city of Buena Park, required to publish its notices in a community paper with 380 subscribers. If a city or county is dissatisfied with the newspaper’s performance, then it should challenge the publication’s adjudication status in court. Newspapers have a responsibility, too, and rightful publications provide the type of reach that satisfy the current legal notice guidelines. According to Web analytics programs, traffic at local government Web sites has been flat for the past year. People are not flocking to city and county Web sites for breaking news and information, so the cost-saving intention of this law could pay the heavy price of an uninformed public. Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, and Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, are two key votes on the committee. A host of cities, counties and government associations are backing the law. If the state legislature wants to help local government save money, it should start by reforming itself, reducing its staff, cutting overlapping agencies and departments — and demanding less financial help from cities and counties to begin with. At a time when notifying the public of government action should be a priority, AB 715 is a step back for the people of Auburn, Placer County and California.