Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kuna's plan to publish ordinance summaries is a bad idea

The devil is in the details.
The city of Kuna is making a move toward “summarization” of some legal notices. Public agencies, such as cities and other taxing entities, are required by state law to publish certain things in newspapers, such as public hearings, annual budgets and ordinances. These public agencies pay newspapers to place these “legal notices.” In the case of the city of Kuna, the Kuna school district, the Kuna library district, the Kuna Rural Fire District and the Kuna Cemetery District, that legal newspaper is the Kuna Melba News. The state of Idaho sets the cost of these legal notices and they apply to every newspaper.
I’m not going to hide anything here. The Kuna Melba News generates revenue from the publication of these notices. It’s not a lot, but it’s significant enough. Without that revenue, we would still exist as a newspaper, but it would certainly have some impact on our operations.
I know some cynics want to say that newspapers fight for legal notices in order to protect their bottom line, but it really is much, much more than that.
Deputy city clerk Chris Engels told Kuna City Council members last week that legal notices are “expensive.” She wasn’t able to quantify it, but the city of Kuna in the current fiscal year budgeted $10,500 to spend on legal notices. Given the city’s $12.4 million overall budget, I wouldn’t exactly say that $10,500 is terribly significant in the grand scheme of things.
One state law does allow cities to summarize some ordinances that are required to be published in the newspaper. Engels told council members last week that the city of Boise summarizes some notices.
But it is worth noting that this discussion is occurring at the very same time that a new mayor and two new City Council members were elected overwhelmingly, in part, on a platform of more openness with the public.
Each one — Mayor-elect Greg Nelson and City Council members-elect Joe Stear and Briana Buban-Vonder Harr — decried the problem that the public is not informed enough about what the city was doing. Some of the blame was placed on secrecy, obfuscation and obstacles on the part of the city.
So now the city wants to make it even worse by summarizing ordinances that directly affect residents?
For example, just this month four local farmers read the details of the proposed weapons discharge ordinance, spoke against it and got City Council to delay its passage. Without publishing the full ordinance, those details would be lost.
Further, the city of Kuna is in the midst of a $30 million lawsuit over the local improvement district, and part of the argument has to do with whether the city properly placed legal notices in the newspaper. These are the same folks who now want to summarize ordinances, leaving open the possibility of someone challenging the city legally over whether a summary was done correctly or adequately. Publishing the full ordinance removes that type of ambiguity.
But let me also address the idea of legal notices in general. I have written in this space before about the importance of delivering to Kuna residents every week the legal notices from every public agency in Kuna. Without legal notices in the Kuna Melba News, readers would have to check in each week with the city of Kuna’s website, the school district’s website, the library’s website, they’d have to drive down to the fire station to see if they have any legal notices, then they’d have to drive over to the cemetery to see if they have any legal notices. Every week. Just to check on the possibility of a legal notice. Can you imagine the 25,000 residents who live within the Kuna school district driving around to get the legal notices? Or the 15,000 residents in the city of Kuna requesting the texts of the ordinances?
The 2011 National Newspaper Association reader survey showed that 80 percent of those surveyed think governments should be required to publish public notices in newspapers, with 23 percent reading public notices very often in their newspapers. That same study shows that 68 percent of the public has never visited their local government’s website.
So moving forward, I am putting City Council members on notice that before they approve an ordinance summary for publication, they need to think about the potential ramifications legally of not publishing the full notice and they need to take into account whether they are serving their constituents by not providing complete information.
If council members do approve a summary, they need make sure that the summary is adequate to convey the ordinance’s effect and intent. It’s not enough to provide just one line that says the city is passing a weapons discharge ordinance. It has to tell readers what the ordinance would do.
The example that Engels presented to City Council last week is not done correctly. An ordinance summary must still inform the reader of what the ordinance is about. Engels’ example of a summary of the weapons discharge ordinance falls woefully short.
Finally, if the City Council does decide to publish a summary, I would recommend that they require a follow-up study. If the city staff publishes a summary in the newspaper and posts the full summary on its website, City Council members should find out how many people looked up the ordinance on the website. If it’s not that many, the city should abandon the ill-advised practice of summarization.
It’s all about communicating with the public. During the election, the voters sent a clear message that they want more communication from the city, not less.

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