Publish public information in Texas, don't tuck it away

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley is frugal, something to be admired in a public official. As the county's top elected leader, he doesn't want to spend a single taxpayer dollar that can reasonably be left unspent.

Whitley apparently believes he has found $50,000 in taxpayer money that's unwisely spent each year, and he wants to hold on to it. But in this case, he's not being smart or admirable.

He wants the Legislature to pass a bill authorizing him and elected officials from other public bodies across the state to stop publishing important public information in general-circulation newspapers and put that information on their websites instead.

Freshman state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford has introduced HB335 to allow Whitley and others to make that switch.

To be clear, the general circulation newspaper in Tarrant County is the Star-Telegram. Public bodies pay the paper's lowest advertising rate, but it still amounts to a very small portion of this newspaper's revenue.

So there's an obvious conflict of interest for the Editorial Board to speak out about Stickland's bill. But set that aside and look at what's happening to the public's business if the bill becomes law.

Whitley's $50,000, even under the fanciful notion that there would be no expenses to online publication and it all would become savings for taxpayers, is less than two one-hundredths of 1 percent of the county's annual budget.

The trade-off would be that information from dozens of public bodies in Tarrant County, information that state law requires to be brought to public attention, would no longer be centrally available in print and online from the newspaper but instead would be hard to find, tucked away in dozens of Internet locations.

At a House Technology Committee hearing on Stickland's bill last week in Austin, James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told committee members, "We don't think newspapers are the best medium for communication anymore."

If the goal is to avoid attention, he may be right. But for putting information and the power to act on that information in public hands, newspapers and their online extensions reach more people than any other local media.

HB335 is penny-wise and dollar-foolish.

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