From the fearless lawmakers in Harrisburg who brought you the midnight pay hike, comes the latest way to operate in the dark.
State Sen. Bob Robbins (R, Mercer) has proposed a bill that would allow local governments to place all legal notices online rather than in newspapers.
If adopted, public notices - such as budget hearings, zoning changes, property sales, and proposed housing developments - now required by law to be listed in newspapers, could instead appear on a government Web site.
Robbins says the bill - which is up for a committee vote today - is a way to save money and provide convenient access to information.
That may appear true on the surface. But in reality, this is a bad idea on several fronts.
For starters, government agencies aren't known for "convenient access to information."
In addition, Pennsylvania has the second-oldest population in the country. Many residents don't have access to the Internet or may not be computer savvy. So expecting the elderly or the low-income - or any other citizen, for that matter - to surf the Net for a public notice of, say, a proposed landfill in their neighborhood, isn't realistic.
In addition, the bill calls for a government office or a third-party contractor to operate the Web site.
Having a government office in charge of the site is like the fox guarding the henhouse. Who will ensure that the listings get posted or are easy to find?
As for the third-party contractor, knowing the ways of Harrisburg, there's a good chance the contract will go to a campaign contributor or crony of some lawmaker. Who knows what the contract will end up costing taxpayers?
To be sure, newspapers, including The Inquirer, have a financial stake in this fight. Robbins says local government entities could save a combined $23 million in annual advertising costs.
That may sound like a lot. But according to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, that figure is the total spent by all 4,793 local government entities over three years. That works out to about $2,000 per entity for each year.
The biggest and most important issue is the public's right to know and how best to get the information distributed to the broadest audience.
Newspapers face many challenges these days, but they remain the cheapest and most reliable way to keep the public informed. That's why Robbins would be wise to shelve this bill.