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Public notices: Trust government? No

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The latest proposal to allow Pennsylvania local government public notices to be published online, instead of in newspapers, puts too much faith in government.

Senate Bill 733, sponsored by Sen. Bob Robbins, R-Mercer County, would require municipalities, school districts, local authorities and intergovernmental entities to still print such notices in “legal journals,” which county bar associations typically run — and typical Pennsylvanians rarely read. But they'd have the option to publish public notices on their own official websites instead of in “newspapers of general circulation,” with the Governor's Center for Local Government Services within the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) listing, online, local government websites carrying public notices.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, cites the “significant number” of Pennsylvanians lacking Internet access as one SB 733 problem. But the biggest, she says, is reliance on local governments' own websites, which are infrequently visited, not secure and, unlike newspapers, don't provide independent, third-party authentication of notices' publication.

And SB 733's ill-advised faith in government is compounded by its reliance on the DCED — a mess of an agency with a history of record-keeping and other accountability problems — for that online list.

The Senate must keep public notices where they belong — in newspapers reaching far more Pennsylvanians than local government websites do.

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