Tahlequah Daily Press

February 17, 2014

Eliminating legal notice publication in papers a disservice to taxpayers


TAHLEQUAH — Every few years, a state legislator tries to nullify the long-standing requirement to publish county legal notices in newspapers. Advocates point out how much time and money counties can save if they don’t have to publish a synopsis of their activities, and hint the windfall could be used to buy a new road grader and hire an employee to drive it.

But they never mention that mandatory printing of legal notices is the only direct and reliable way the public can hold elected officials accountable. And as any long-term Oklahoma resident can attest, transparency is critical when it comes to the state’s 231 county commissioners.

The commissioner scandal of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s might not be on many minds today, but it was center stage at the time. More than 200 people were indicted in across-the-board kickback schemes; some were vendors, but most were commissioners who were fattening their wallets at taxpayer expense. One of Cherokee County’s own went down in flames, along with the other crooks.

Okies have long memories, but they can be murky, so many folks think the law requiring legal publication was enacted as a result of this widespread corruption. Just the opposite is true: Had the law not existed then, investigators could not have collected the documentation to prove wrongdoing. In almost all cases, the offending commissioners destroyed the damning records; the evidence needed to bring them to justice was instead found in newspaper archives across the state.

The most recent attempt to subvert transparency, HB 2445, was introduced this session. While past proposals have tried to eliminate the publication requirement altogether, HB 2445 was not overtly aimed at blocking access to information, but was  designed to change its method of delivery. It would have allowed commissioners to publish legal notices on newspaper websites, rather than in print editions, on the assumption that online publication would be cheaper. The logic isn’t necessarily sound, because newspapers could still charge the maximum amount allowable by law. So if the impetus was to prevent papers from profiting, or to recoup cash for county coffers, HB 2445 was a wash. Newspapers could still exact their pound of flesh; the loser in this scenario is the taxpaying public.

Not all newspapers have websites, and even those with the most state-of-the-art online presence still can’t guarantee absolute security. It’s possible for an outside hacker, or an employee, to alter content. Furthermore, if a newspaper changes its website vendor, it may lose its archives. And even when archives are available, a reader has to know what he’s looking for before he can find it. In short, it’s neither full-proof nor convenient for this purpose. The print edition is still the only way a newspaper can be absolute in exercising its duty as a government watchdog. Once something’s in print, it’s there to stay, and it’s actively “pushed” to the public, rather than passively awaiting attempts at access.

The watchdog role, more than anything else, is why newspapers with trained staffs will always play a vital role in society. Most public officials realize this, even if they don’t like it – and that’s why we were so disappointed to hear District 1 Cherokee County Commissioner Doug Hubbard saying just the opposite on a Tulsa TV station.

Hubbard told the reporter the Press charged the commissioners more for recent legal publications than in years past. The report was a bit deceptive because it cited a figure paid “just this year,” without clarifying the county’s “fiscal year”  starts in July. But the Press only did what many other publications do, and assessed the legal rate established by the state Legislature. That rate hasn’t changed in nine years, so if the county paid far less in the past, it’s been getting a real bargain.

But where we really take issue with Hubbard is something else he said: “... Newspapers are dwindling, the use of them... and it’s not getting any better... this is an opportune time to get some of this stuff started.” He employed the usual argument, saying the money paid for legal notices could have funded the salaries of two employees, one of whom could design a website. That seemed to indicate he wants the county to develop its own online vehicle for legal publications. In light of state history, we’re sure he will forgive us for suggesting that’s like hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.

Hubbard’s assertion that newspapers are “dwindling” must be based on purported trends of metro publications, because the Press, like many other community newspapers, has maintained a stable subscriber base for years, and is even logging growth. But if newspapers are “dying,” why did billionaire Warren Buffett purchase the Tulsa World? Why did Amazon founder Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post? These men didn’t make their fortunes by pouring money into losing ventures.

The most qualified person to speak on this topic is Mark Thomas, executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association. Thomas is a true champion for government transparency, and here’s what he had to say: “Printed notices in local newspapers keep government accountable and keep citizens informed about the actions of their government. Plus, the money paid for these notices help newspapers provide more coverage of government activities. Maybe that’s why some public officials want notices eliminated.”

We’re not lumping Hubbard into that category. Perhaps he really believes newspapers are irrelevant, but he might change his mind if he engaged in questionable activities. It’s a sure bet the Press would eventually find out, and we’d tell his constituents.

Hubbard might also believe the county can’t “afford” to pay for legal publication. But there’s a bit of irony in the fact that Cherokee County commissioners, with their salaries in excess of $52,000, make nearly twice as much as the average journalist in this region – and for that matter, more than the average teacher. Commissioners don’t have to show up for work if they don’t want to, nor are they required to have college degrees – and most don’t. All teachers must have degrees, and most journalists have degrees or at least some college credits, and if they don’t show up, they get sacked.

Legislators may have had some of these things in mind last week when they let HB 2445 slide by – to the chorus of crickets – and likely rendered it moot for another year. Or maybe they decided against taking on a collective entity that buys ink by the barrel. Either way, they did the public a favor.

Transparency and accountability in county government – where it is needed more than just about anywhere else – has survived another day. For that, we should all be thankful.