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Guest Opinion

Ask Jim Ham

The Monroe County Reporter of Forsyth, Georgia

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On the Porch

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Thomas Jefferson

It often takes someone who's lived under tyranny, like Mr. Jefferson, to understand the importance of erecting safeguards against government overreach. America's success can largely be attributed to the wisdom of our forefathers in building lasting checks and balances against man's natural desire to abuse and rule over his fellow human beings.

One of those balances that has worked very well in Georgia is the requirement that local governments advertise public notices in newspapers. The idea is that when your local government exercises its power, the people that government serves have a right to know.

A recent example: The Monroe County school board decided in May 2014 it wanted to condemn a private landowner's property to make room for its new Fine Arts Center. The power to seize someone's property, even at fair market value, is a serious one that takes away another's right to his own property. Because the school board had to notify taxpayers through this newspaper, the public found out about it in time to mobilize opposition. The board listened to its constituents and dropped the idea, at least for now.

That's only the latest example. Whether changing the laws we must obey or raising the taxes we must pay, the law says that governments in Georgia must inform the public through newspapers. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and public notices have served the state well.

Alas some of our county commissioners, led by my commissioner, Jim Ham, want centuries of law overturned so they can do what they want, when they want, without really telling anyone. Ham's a member of the governing board of the Association of County Commissioners in Georgia (ACCG). It's a lobbying group in Atlanta that agitates on behalf of county governments. The ACCG is pushing hard and making donations hoping to compel state lawmakers this winter to liberate them from having to place public notices in newspapers. The ACCG says it'll save them money if they can just notify the public about important items on county government websites.

Of course, what Ham et al want to do is gut the requirement that local governments tell their constituents what they're doing.

Take last week's fiasco in which the county sent out 17,000 erroneous tax bills. The mistake could've cost the county government $3.2 million The county was hoping people wouldn't pay their tax bills before they could get the new ones out. Tax commissioner Lori Andrews said taxpayers needed to notify their mortgage companies not to pay the mistaken tax bills. But two weeks after the error was caught, the county hasn't bothered to post the problem on its website. And we don't really blame them. Studies show that millions of Americans still read their local newspaper and its website. Very few ever go to their county government website. Monroe County has yet to tell us how many people go to its website each month. It's probably not many.

Aww shucks, the overalled Ham will guffaw from his Waffle House booth. That Will just doesn't want to lose that revenue. Well, like Mr. Ham, it's true that I don't like to lose revenue. But how much does this newspaper collect each year for Monroe County public notice ads? Much less than $8,500, the amount the county will spend to re-send the tax bills that it sent out in error last month. If our business waited for public notice revenue to pay our bills, the Reporter wouldn't be the growing, thriving enterprise that we are.

No it's not about the revenue. It's about what's right. Newspapers as much as anyone know that government officials do better when they're being watched. And small-town newspapers reach their communities better than any other media. Moving public notices out of newspapers and onto unused and little-watched county government websites would mean less accountability for local government. And it would leave the elderly and poor, those without internet access, totally in the dark about what their government is doing.

The bottom line is that all Georgians win with public notices in newspapers' print editions and their popular websites. It's the best way to keep citizens abreast of government activities. It's a system that's worked so well for so long, and getting better, that you can't help but wonder why Jim Ham would want to change it. Why don't you ask him?

Copyright 2015 The Monroe County Reporter, Forsyth, Georgia. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: November 4, 2015

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