Charter election concern spurs fast action to save public notices
Feb. 14, 2012 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 14, 2012 at 8:15 p.m.
A proposition on the May 12 city charter election seeking to "permit broader notification of ordinances to the public" could do the opposite if left unchanged.
The proposed amendment of Article 2, Section 10, which address public notices, was intended to add additional means of public communication. However, the wording sent up red flags to proponents of open government and experts on free information who say it is premature and potentially harmful.
After hearing these concerns, Councilman Tom Halepaska, chairman of the six-person charter review committee, said Tuesday that he would propose an amendment to his committee's proposition during next week's city council meeting. His amendment would reinstate the public notification requirement for print and include the option of electronic distribution.
The original proposition would no longer specifically require public notices to be published in a local newspaper of general circulation - or in any other form. Halepaska said the charter committee intended to continue to require the city to notify the public, but wanted to allow for a future unspecified electronic medium - email, text message or something not yet invented.
Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said, "While the intention may be noble to find another alternative, it apparently is premature."
He said moving to electronic or online notices without strict requirements can block access to public information.
"You are not enhancing the public's right to know; you are seriously limiting the public's right to know," Elkins said. "Whether or not the public chooses to read the public notices is not the issue. It's that they're readily available, in the same location and there for a long, long period of time."
Halepaska said his intention with the proposition was to create a contingency plan if The Advocate's presses one day stopped running.
"I just felt like we were trapped in a single method, and I see the world changing around me faster than I can personally adapt," Halepaska said.
Elkins said adequate provisions already exist should a city's newspaper close.
If the local newspaper goes out of business, "then would be the appropriate time for something like this to be considered," Elkins said. "Not as an alternative, just in case."
Advocate co-publisher Stephen McHaney said 2011 was a strongly profitable year for the newspaper. The 165-year-old Advocate will be around for many years to come, he said. The newspaper's most recent, scientific study showed nine out of 10 adults in Victoria read the Advocate.
"The death of media has been predicted many times," McHaney said.
Halepaska and the committee started updating the city charter in 2010.
He described the 16 measures as "housekeeping," updating articles on taxing, voting requirements and planning.
In a Feb. 15, 2011, letter Halepaska submitted to the council, he said that "none of the recommended changes was urgent enough to require a charter election in 2011."
There must be a minimum of two years between charter elections.
Halepaska said he recognizes the concern regarding freedom of information with proposition 2, but "didn't think it was that big of a deal."
"I kept waiting for somebody to say something and just figured it wasn't that big of a bugaboo to them," he said.
Councilman Paul Polasek, who also serviced on the charter review committee, said the propositions are ready for the public's vote.
"We vetted the process and have gone through them very carefully," Polasek said. "If Tom or any other council member wants to amend the wording, that's perfectly acceptable."
Multiple messages left for Councilwoman Denise Rangel, who also served on the review committee, were not returned by deadline.