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Our view: City Council backtracks on transparency

January 31, 2019

Less than a month after passing a justifiably much-lauded plan to bring more transparency to city government, the Rochester City Council has made what sure looks like a U-turn.

The council, following recommendation from the Charter Commission, voted unanimously to no longer require that all city legal notices be published in the newspaper of record. That means rather than opening up city government, the council will make government documents more difficult for citizens to find and read.

Henceforth, most city legal notices and ordinances will be published only online on the city’s website. If you don’t have a computer or internet connection, forget about finding out everything your city government is up to. Of course, you can still follow Post-Bulletin coverage of the council and other city meetings. And some legal notices are required by state law to be published in the newspaper.

But under the new guidelines, you won’t necessarily find all of the city’s legal notices, which can affect every taxpayer, printed in the newspaper.

Yes, we at the newspaper have a vested interest, both professional and financial. Frankly, so does every citizen. For us, the income from paid legal notices ($13,202 in 2018), while important, is only part of the issue.

Journalism 101 states that we in newspapers are the eyes and ears of citizens who don’t have the same wherewithal or time or ability we do to keep tabs on their government. In this case, we’re advocating on behalf of citizens for more transparency in city government. It’s simple: Publish all legal notices in as many places as possible, including online and in the newspaper.

After all, the city’s own survey of residents last year found that 31 percent of respondents listed the Post Bulletin as their preferred communication channel for information about city government. The second-ranked source of such information was the city’s own website, at 26 percent.

Is it ridiculous to argue, as some have, that anyone with passing interest can gain access to a computer and read the legal notices? We think so. One of the tenets of democracy is that we’re only as good as the least among us. It shouldn’t be so difficult to track down an official city ordinance.

We find it odd that some council members who normally voice concerns for people lacking access to transportation or affordable housing would so easily dismiss those same citizens’ lack of access to city business.

By the way, once something appears in print in a newspaper, it is there forever. It is kept in archives and on microfilm. The city, by contrast, intends to make legal notices available on its website for only a minimum of 30 days.

That’s an unusual definition of government transparency.

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