Local Government Units Trying to Become Less Accountable,
Less Transparent to Taxpayers
By Dennis DeRossett
As state government scurries to fill a projected $8 billion deficit in the 2016 fiscal year budget, it would seem to make sense to move beyond successful compromises and proven solutions already in place and instead focus on issues that truly have a significant impact on the state’s finances.
At least you would think so given the seriousness of the fiscal crisis.
But that’s not the case with some elected officials and local government lobbyists that represent the more than 7,000 taxpayer funded units of government in Illinois. Behind-the-scenes efforts are currently taking place that would reduce their obligation of accountability and transparency to taxpayers, all under the guise of the state’s financial crisis. It’s a “smoke-and-mirrors” attempt by local governments at a time of fiscal crisis where Illinois taxpayers would end up on the losing end.
One successful compromise and proven solution that is now in its fifth year of operation is the PublicNoticeIllinois (PNI) website, or www.publicnoticeillinois.com. PNI is a centralized, aggregated website for all public notices from the state of Illinois, units of local government, and the Illinois court system. It’s a free-access website that is updated daily. It’s an example of a proven, successful public-private partnership that is already saving taxpayers money and should be supported by elected officials at all levels of government.
Public notices, or legal notices as they are often referred to, are a fundamental component in the foundation of our democracy and of our legal system. For more than 200 years, newspapers have been paid to print public notices and to serve as the critically important independent third-party between units of local government and taxpayers, and have functioned as the official notification system of our court system.
Frankly, it’s a process that has worked so well and for so long that those wanting to eliminate it or change to another process rarely consider the chaos and disruption to government bodies and to the court system that would take place without this proper verification, certification and archiving of public notices and notices of the courts.
PNI was created by state law in 2011 and was approved unanimously by both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. Yes, unanimously. Key components of the law called for the creation of a centralized website for public notices that would be managed by Illinois newspapers. It requires newspapers to upload all notices to PNI after the notices appear in print. All of this is done at no additional cost to government. No taxpayer money goes towards supporting or managing the public notice website.
With each new session of the Illinois General Assembly, local government lobbyists –whose paychecks are funded largely by your tax dollars–repeatedly push bills to eliminate public notices or remove them from newspapers and PNI in favor of their own individual websites. These bills rarely make it out of committee because, frankly, state lawmakers understand that forcing citizens to attempt to locate notices across 7,000 websites doesn’t make sense. (Actually, it would be about 4,000 websites as many units of local government do not yet have a website.)
Such legislation was introduced and failed again earlier this session. However, local government groups are now using behind the scenes tactics to remove public notices from print and from PNI and, instead, have the notices placed on their individual websites. But, this time they have a new twist: They are claiming that having to be accountable and transparent through the current public notice process is an “unfunded mandate” and they want to do away with it. The simple fact is this issue is not about money, it’s about reducing transparency and accountability to the taxpayers.
Every year Illinois citizens dutifully fulfill their obligation of paying many types and amounts of taxes to support these thousands of local government units throughout the state. Each of these units has an annual operating budget that ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars. Taxpayer dollars, that is.
It’s not at all about “saving the taxpayers money” because that has already been done successfully through the 2011 legislation and PNI. Local governments will still try to sell it that way, however. Local government officials should focus on the big-impact issues, allow the proven public notice solution in our state to keep on working, and not spend so much time and taxpayer dollars on how to be less accountable and less transparent.
The author, Dennis DeRossett, is executive director of the Illinois Press Association. The IPA is based in Springfield and represents more than 500 newspapers throughout Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.