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Due care should be taken when the Ketchikan Gateway Borough attempts to balance its budget at the expense of transparency.
We understand the issue of balancing a budget. We've had to do it through good times and bad ones.
On the line at Monday's Borough Assembly meeting is public notices — those not required by the state Open Meetings Act.
The borough's fiscal 2016 budget is $34.2 million, which includes more than $12 million in the general fund. Its staff is recommending cutting $25,000 in public notice advertising in the Ketchikan Daily News.
What the borough receives for the money and what the staff proposes could be eliminated includes a wide range of notices that serve to inform the public.
Examples of notices that might no longer be included in the newspaper, if this recommendation is adopted, include:
• Board and commission vacancy notices.
• Sales tax delinquency notices.
• Some notices inviting competitive formal bids and proposals.
• Some job vacancy announcements.
• Notices of tideland lease applications.
• Notices of a public hearing on formation of a service area.
• Notices to users for low water surcharge.
• Notices of hearings on repair or demolition of dangerous buildings.
• Notices of public hearings on variances.
• Notices of applications for plat alterations.
• Notices of preliminary right-of-way plats.
• Notices of zoning permit applications for marijuana establishments.
• Notices of major variances.
• Notices of public hearings on conditional use permits.
• Notices of public hearings on Planning Commission resolutions proposing to amend the zoning code.
• Notices of appeal to the Board of Adjustment.
• Borough Assembly agendas.
The borough's Planning Commission recommended this week that the borough continue to publish Planning Commission agendas.
The borough clerk stated this week that the borough would continue to publish election notices for the foreseeable future.
For the other notices, instead of appearing in the newspaper, they would be placed on a borough website and a public notice bulletin board at the borough building on First Avenue.
It's difficult to imagine the community taking time out of each day to stop by the borough building or to wade through one more website in search of public notices.
Public notices, open meetings and public records are the means by which the people hold government accountable. Public notices, specifically, are published in a medium independent of the government.
The Ketchikan Daily News is the local medium to bring public notices effectively to the community.
A broad range of people depend on the newspaper to provide public notices, along with local news and photographs, and a wide selection of other items. Even people who aren't looking for public notices in the paper see them as they read the paper.
Changing the procedure for public notices is likely to increase the size and cost of government over time at the expense of private enterprise. It will take borough staff to ensure public notices are continuously online and to react to the public when it complains it didn't see them, particularly when borough actions affect them and their neighborhoods. Currently, the newspaper provides affidavits created independent of the government stating that the notices were published.
The Daily News has a paid circulation, a testament to the fact that it is being read, and most copies are read by 2.5 people, according to industry studies. That suggests that well over half the population of Ketchikan reads the Daily News.
All of the paper's subscribers receive free access to the newspaper online, plus additional subscribers pay for online-only access.
The newspaper has a wide range of subscribers, including high school students on occasion. People like to read newspapers. The people over 50 who were young when the internet came along still largely enjoy print editions. But so do today's young people. The likelihood of either spending much time scanning public notices while they can access so many other things online is remote. Additionally, many are busy raising families, and they read about their kids, or their kids read about themselves, in the newspaper, particularly on pages that deal with the arts, education and sports. They clip the articles and post them, notably on school bulletin boards. And, they likely catch other types of items in the paper, for example, public notices, too, as they flip through the pages.
Over time more and more subscribers of the Daily News will read their paper electronically instead of in print. But they will read the local news about them and the community.
By changing the public notice procedure, the borough government essentially will be reducing its transparency to all of these print and online readers of the newspaper. The public has demonstrated through election results in the past decade that it wants transparency. Studies show that hasn't changed, and calls for transparency will become more prevalent if governments put more distance between what they're doing and the public.
That said, the Borough Assembly's job of balancing the budget isn't easy. Neither is it for local businesses. Both business and government are being asked to do more with less in the current financial times.
But, it remains to be true, when it comes to both business and government that it is the people who are most important, and the people need a source for government information that isn't the government.
Whether the Assembly approves the public notice ordinance change before it on Monday, the newspaper will continue to do its job, and continue covering the Borough Assembly meetings for the public. It will ride both the highs and the lows economically, right along with the community, and provide information useful for local society.
With the borough government, however, a key component of its job is to be transparent to the people.