Bills Threaten Open Government, Civil Society

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Several bills threaten open government and civil society in Tennessee; they seek to end newspaper publication of public notices by various means. All will be heard in either the House or the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Unbelievably, my First Amendment rights are curtailed until next November. By law, I cannot at this time speak to a legislator, or write him or her about a piece of legislation. However, I may give you my opinion, and you are free to do whatever you choose.

Czar of Determination

One bill empowers the secretary of state to make a “determination” regarding whether or not a publication is a “newspaper of general circulation” for the purpose of public notices. There is already a definition in state law for a newspaper of general circulation — and this definition has never proven to be a problem.

To allow the secretary of state to become the Czar of determining whether or not a newspaper is one of general circulation puts too much power in one person’s hands. It becomes a subjective “ruling” that is in reality an improper role for the office. Our nation operates by the rule of law — the law defines and determines whether or not something is so, not a sole individual. This bill creates a new power for an elected official, and crosses an important the boundary between the private and public sector. The duties of the secretary of state are to carefully preserve the records of the state of Tennessee and to make them available to the public, to “certify” the results of elections upon receipt from counties, and to record incorporations and trademarks. There is no other similar, arbitrary power for one individual in state government regarding a business.

End Community Publication of Eminent Domain

Another bill will do away with the publication of eminent domain takings by municipalities. By law, land owners must be notified by mail, and a notice must also be published in the area newspaper of general circulation. There are several good reasons for this publication; first, just in case the landowner does not receive the notice; second, so that adjacent land owners are aware of the taking; Third, so that the rest of the community is aware of the taking and therefore, they can reason whether or not there is an effect on their own property or, if in general, the government seems to be taking an excess amount of land.

End Community Publication of Public Notices Entirely

This bill would end publication of public notices in Knox County, and instead place them on an official government web site. 25% of Tennesseans have no internet access, and of those that do few will seek to read the notices buried on some government website — they’re simply seen as too mundane to seek out. The state policy of publishing public notices is built upon an important principle behind our Constitution and state law — that is, if the government intends to take some action that will limit or change our rights, or that may take our property, then government must go out and seek to provide public notice to the community. The halls of government have never been enough because too few enter through its doors — it is the same with government web sites .

When candidates are running for office a promise transparency and accountability is quite common. We also want thrift but a less informed citizenry is not worth saving a little money in a tight budget year. Few will ever seek to browse through mundane public notices on a website, and many Tennesseans still have no Internet access. Newspaper publication informs the community and preserves democracy.

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