There are reasons why laws exist to require government to be transparent. For one, government is doing the public’s business and should be accountable to voters. It is nourished with public money generated by the taxes that individuals and businesses pay. And it makes decisions, large and small, that affect real people.
There’s another reason. Without rules backed up with penalties, some in government would be happy to do the public’s work out of the public eye. They may prefer the lack of publicity and absence of questions.
But transparency, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant. It reduces the likelihood of waste, bloat or even corruption. When the public is looking, government is more likely to do the right thing.
Recently, the communities of Mills and Bar Nunn have taken steps to make their governments less transparent. Both passed ordinances that they claim exempt them from state laws requiring municipalities to publish public notices in the newspaper on a variety of matters. Instead of publishing notices with a non-government entity, the towns are now posting them on their websites and in public places. Doing so, they say, is more efficient and less costly. (Newspapers like the Star-Tribune charge municipalities for space in their publications.)
Whatever intentions the communities might have, they are making the public’s business less accessible to the public. And that lack of transparency could have consequences. Transparency is what keeps small government from becoming an exclusive and often powerful club.
Ronald Reagan famously popularized the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Without a third party, we’re left with trusting government to do the right thing without a way to verify it. The towns say the notices will be available in three public places, but Bar Nunn has only listed two, and one of those, the fire department, wasn’t publicly accessible when a reporter recently paid a visit.
The towns also say they’ll publish the notices online. What if they don’t — or don’t do so in a timely manner? When a reporter went to the Mills website in June, meeting minutes were only available through late March.
And what happens if an employee decides to change an online notice after the fact? If it’s listed on a municipality’s own website, what safeguards would prevent that?
Requiring publication of notices in a third-party publication makes those concerns less likely. Unlike an online notice, a physical one can’t be deleted or changed when no one is looking. It’s accessible to people who don’t have access to computers. And it prevents a situation in which the government fox is tasked with guarding the hen house.
Ask yourself this: Do you trust government to hold itself accountable? Without guardrails, do you trust government to do the right thing? Will it be as efficient if no one is looking?
There’s evidence to suggest otherwise. Studies have shown that in communities that lose their local newspapers, the cost of government rises. Without that transparency and accountability, municipalities become costlier places as far as the taxpayers are concerned.
The issue is hardly academic. Public notices are not just for town councils and county commissions. They’re also required for things like zoning variances and oil and gas wells. Would you rather wait until after someone constructs a building that encroaches too close to your land or drills an oil well too close to a school? Public notices are good and need to be done in a correct manner that keeps everyone informed.
There’s an irony that this episode began in Mills, a town that’s had its own problems with government corruption. In 2017, its then treasurer was sentenced for embezzling $60,000 in public money. A year earlier, the town’s then mayor resigned while being investigated for interfering with the embezzlement investigation and profiting from town land sales. In 2018, it was revealed the town was nearly four months behind on posting its council minutes. The current crop of leaders have, from all appearances, taken real steps to improve the government and its operations. But does it really make sense to remove the guardrails of transparency only a few years after these controversies?
Wyomingites tend to possess a healthy skepticism of government. Most people prefer government that is small, unintrusive and efficient. Those qualities are more likely in a municipality that holds itself publicly accountable and makes straightforward efforts to be truly transparent. Getting rid of public notices in newspapers is a step in the wrong direction.