EDITORIAL: The law change that would keep Alaskans in the dark about government dealings

Apr. 20—If a proposed bill passes the Alaska Legislature, it will be harder for Alaskans to keep apprised of what its government is doing. Senate Bill 68, which is moving toward the floor of the House after the State Affairs committee chaired by Rep. Laddie Shaw rubber-stamped it, would eliminate newspaper notices about government actions now required to be published by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Let's be clear: Legal notices in newspapers provide revenue, so maintaining requirements for their publication in Alaska papers is in our interest — but it's in Alaskans' interest, too. The people of this state deserve to know about the effect this change will have on us — and them — and to understand why a trusted third party should be the provider of public notice.

SB 68 would unquestionably result in less transparency from the DNR and DEC. In fact, that appears to be the only significant impact the bill would have.

At the committee's April 4 hearing, representatives from both agencies talked about how SB 68 will allow them to publish notices on the Alaska Online Public Notice System (AOPNS). But current law already requires most of the agencies' notices to be posted on AOPNS. Moreover, all DEC notices are already posted on AOPNS — even the few that aren't required by law to be posted there — according to the testimony of Gene McCabe, acting director of the Division of Water.

DNR and DEC say they want the bill because it gives them more flexibility. With all due respect to the agencies, "more flexibility" in this context simply means "we can provide less notice without having to worry about the law." Both agencies already have all the flexibility they need to provide more notice than current law mandates. For instance, as Mr. McCabe noted in his testimony, DEC already posts all of its notices on social media even though the law doesn't require it.

The sponsor's statement says SB 68 "would eliminate coordinating issues with newspaper publications and reduce permit processing timeframes." DNR and DEC have also made the dubious claim that the bill would not require expending state resources, which those who know government understand is an oft-promised and never-delivered "free lunch." SB 68 would absolutely increase state spending. Proofreading, formatting, providing affidavits, running, maintaining and securing websites — these things all take effort. SB 68 will take those jobs out of the private sector and move them into the government sector, furthering a disturbing trend in this state.

It's true SB 68 would free DNR and DEC from having to work with local newspapers to place ads, but public notice laws aren't designed to make government employees' jobs easier. They're designed to inform the public about important government activities.

If it passes, the bill would make it harder for Alaskans to find public notices and dramatically decrease transparency. The public notice system was always designed to maximize the public's ability to understand what the government was doing without having to go down rabbit holes to find out. To that end, the system required (and should continue to require) that public notices be placed in the busiest, most visible venues that are frequented by the public so that they may become aware of them in the normal course of their day. If you lived next door to a creek that DNR wanted to restrict, how would you ever know their plans if you were expected to seek out an esoteric state website?

At one time, the appropriate venue for keeping the public informed was the town square; eventually it was in printed newspapers. Today the public square is more fractured, but without question, the one institution in each community that the public visits in the normal course of their daily lives, and where they expect to learn what is going on, is the local newspaper.

In addition to eliminating printed newspapers from the equation, SB 68 would result in far less online notice as well. That's because we publish all the notices that run in our print edition at ADN.com at no additional cost, and our website attracts far more readers than AOPNS. According to web traffic diagnostic tool SimilarWeb, AOPNS averages 17,800 visits per month. In the same time period, ADN.com registered 1.73 million visits. That's nearly 100 times more traffic. Putting public notices on the state's website is like handwriting it on a sticky note and posting it in a dark basement under the State Capitol Building.

By contrast, more Alaskans are reading the news than ever. In the Anchorage area, roughly seven out of 10 adults interact with ADN's digital and printed products every week. And the role papers play in rural communities is even more vital. Small newspapers spread out across Alaska are widely read in small towns and villages, and folks there rely on them not only for news, but to understand what DNR, DEC and other state agencies are doing in Juneau, so far away from them. These communities are far from the capital as it is, and making an obscure state website the exclusive required venue for their local notices will only further that divide, particularly given the relative lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas.

Publishing notices in local newspapers also serves as the public's check on the power of the bureaucracy. The newspaper as an institution shines the disinfectant of sunlight on government activities. Allowing the executive branch to operate without properly notifying the public risks a dangerous concentration of power. Due process requires effective notice be placed in an independent source. An independent authority is necessary to protect the legitimacy of the notice and to keep the public informed. Newspapers serve that role. We proofread the ads to make sure they comply with the law, and we provide affidavits that prove publication. And, because newspapers are archived and are available for later review, citizens always have the ability to find out what was done in the past in their communities.

It's inexplicable that the Senate passed this bill unanimously — voluntarily abdicating its responsibility to keep executive agencies accountable — and also that so far, it has faced no resistance from transparency-minded members of the House. On Tuesday, it sailed through the State Affairs committee with no critical questioning. Some committee members seemed to believe that the bill was about promoting transparency and increasing avenues for public notice, when in fact it will accomplish the exact opposite.

SB 68 is a bad bill. It would decrease public transparency and concentrate power in the executive branch and increase state spending, all in the name of making the jobs of employees at DNR and DEC easier. We should be striving for the opposite — to provide the public with more insight into the agencies' activities, to keep jobs in the private sector, and to not put the government fox in charge of posting the times he plans to visit the hen house.