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The Internet does so many things well. It's always available. It's always up to date. It's fast. Legal disputes over net neutrality notwithstanding, there is a sense of equality to it. Perhaps more than anything else, the scale of its available information is truly awe-inspiring. Search for meatloaf blogs, for example, and you'll get 1,830,000 results in .30 seconds.
But — by its very nature — the technology that powers the Internet has created an inestimably diverse, fractured and specialized audience, and therein lies the problem with Anchorage Rep. Mike Hawker's bill on electronic notices.
In short, HB275 would let municipal governments post certain kinds of public notices on their own websites rather than in newspapers.
While a well-intended attempt to streamline certain processes, the bill is a mistake that, if passed, will lead to a less-informed public.
Quick, when was the last time you went to your municipal website? Do you make a regular habit of it? A municipal worker or local politician might, but the vast majority of people don't. After all, they've got those 1,830,000 meatloaf blogs to sift through.
What the Internet offers us is wonderful, but online, everyone is unique. No two people go to the same exact websites. And it is highly unlikely that a great many people will remember to randomly check a government website on the off chance that there is a new public notice.
Those public notices are important, too. Hawker's bill applies to the property tax rate. That's something every Alaskan has the right to be — and should be — informed of.
Hawker advertises his bill as a money-saving venture. Much as we appreciate the fact that the man who recently negotiated the new lease for the Anchorage Legislative Office (at $3.4 million a year, five times what the rent used to be) is now trying to save the state some money, the bottom line is that it's not worth it if public notices are no longer reaching the public.
We know it can look self-serving to defend posting public notices in newspapers, but all in all this is about keeping Alaska communities informed.
Newspapers still fill a valuable role as the vertebrae of Alaska communities. When you open up a newspaper, you can have confidence that if something important in your community has occurred, it will be in the paper. Even people who don't read a paper regularly will pick up a copy if they are looking for a job, or an apartment, or if they want to find something to do over the weekend. Even in the age of the Internet, newspapers are still relied on as valuable community resources.
Another part of HB275 would allow state agencies to post longer reports online rather than print them as a way to save money. That's worth exploring, but again, notice needs to be posted in community publications like newspapers to explain where those reports can be found online. After all, reports don't do any good if no one knows they exist.
As it is currently written, HB275 is a mistake. An informed public is too valuable a thing to nonchalantly throw away. And if you believe a sufficient number of people will remember to periodically check a government website on the off chance a public notice has been released, well, we've got bridge here in Ketchikan we'd like to sell you.