Guest editorial: It's a watchdog thing that we do
We have all met someone who has a dog that barks every time someone, no matter who, comes around.
"He's a great watchdog," the owner will almost always say as they let you in their house. "He always lets me know when someone is around."
That kind of watchdog can be irritating though, and in some ways can be as useless as a dog that never barks even if someone is breaking into the house. Barking all the time is like crying wolf; sooner or later it gets ignored and then the worst can happen.
Saturday night I was given the honor of being installed as the 2010-11 president of the Utah Press Association. The association does a lot of things for newspapers and works to improve newspapers lots across the state, regardless if they have a circulation of 400 or 400,000. But our biggest charge is to be sure that we play watchdog on the government, without being the dog that barks too often.
In the last year I have written a number of columns and editorials concerning the placing of governmental legal notices on Web sites rather than in newspapers. While we know the digital age is upon us, we still want to be sure that the public knows what is going on whether they can run a computer or not. We want them to know about changes in zoning in their area or warnings about construction projects whether they have access to the internet or not.
We need them to know regardless of their situation.
Last year, the legislature passed a law that starting in two years first and second class county/municipal governments and others will not have to publish their legal notices in newspapers of general circulation anymore. They instead, can put them on a Web site that the UPA, in good faith, has developed so that people can access them via the Web.
There is nothing wrong with that at all; we all know that the world is headed away from the digital frontier we have now crossed and into digital civilization, where those kinds of things will be the norm. That's the reason newspapers, like ours, have been so active in putting together good web sites.
But if you leave anyone out of the chance to know about something they should know about, you leave one too many out. Some people can't use the Internet or have no access. This is a problem.
And even more important than that is the fact that most people will not even look at legal notices if they are on the web, unless they know they need to look. A legal concerning a zoning situation or changes in your locality on the web for most people is like having termites in their walls. Few know they have them until they notice a beam sagging or a wall looking frail and then they find the damage has been done. Legals posted only on a web site can be the same way. You just won't run into a legal concerning your situation on the internet like you can in a newspaper.
Let's say you're reading the sports and the legals are on the next page. You see a map of Central Street there and suddenly you are drawn to it because you live on Central Street. You read the legal and find out they are planning on widening the road and that there is a public hearing about it in a week. You have a chance to go, give input and maybe even mitigate some problems because you noticed that legal.
The problem? The sports page, nor the social page, nor the obituaries lie next to the Utah Legals.com Web site. You would not know about the possible changes on Central Street without that serendipidous coincidence of seeing it on the page next to the sports.
I can't stress the importance of this situation enough. Government and financial interests will almost always only do what they are legally bound to do; and in the past some have used loopholes in notification laws to get things past a public hearing or some type of scrutiny to keep the furor over a project down. This could be a great tool for them to do just that.
Sponsors of the bills that have brought these kinds of law to us believe they are providing more transparency rather than less. I think they are honest in what they say; I have met and talked with many of them and I think they have the publics interest at heart. I just think they are not seeing the whole picture.
Keep this propensity in mind for next years legislature. And if you talk to your representative between now and then tell them that information about what is going on should be for all, not just those that are tech savy enough or those that happen to be privy to some up and coming project or change in the community.