Publishing public record adds another level of accountability

The Kentucky Standard

Toward the end of August, both the Nelson County and Bardstown school districts published their complete annual financial statements in The Kentucky Standard. For many readers, this was the first time they had seen the public school districts’ financial statements and others recalled years ago reading the public school districts’ financial statements in the newspaper.
In fact, it’s been some 14 years since public school districts were required by law to publish their financial statements in the newspaper of the largest general circulation in the county. Over the last 14 years they had other options including to continue publishing the documents in their local newspaper, placing them electronically on the Internet or placing a printed copy at a prearranged site at the main branch of the public library. If they chose either of the latter two choices, the school district was still required to publish the address of the public library or website address where the documents could be viewed in the newspaper.
Most districts chose to publish on their own websites. However, the law never required any specific length of time that the financial documents should be made available to the public, either at the library or online.
The change in the law this April resulted from a last minute line-item veto from Gov. Matt Bevin on HB 303 that would have allowed all local governments, like the school districts, to choose the method in making their financial statements available to the public, including placing them on their own websites. Fortunately, the governor opted to support transparency at all levels of government where taxpayers’ dollars are involved, which included forcing school districts to once again publish their annual financial statements.
Yes, this newspaper, along with others, does receive payment for any public notice that is placed in our publication; however, the most important issue is that the public should never support a process that allows any public agency to control how, when, where and what it is required to make available to the public. There should always be a neutral third party involved in that process, and that’s where newspapers enter. We are the watchdogs of our communities. We provide another checkpoint and work hard to hold public officials accountable on how they spend taxpayers’ money.
Newspapers record history every day, and once a public notice is printed in the newspaper, it’s permanent. Anyone can have access to the public notice today, tomorrow or decades from now. We don’t support any public agency having the option of posting public notices to any website, especially not their own, because Kentucky still lags behind in reliable Internet service. Kentucky ranks 42nd in the United States in most-connected states, and 15 percent of Kentuckians still don’t even have access to any wired Internet provider. While the KentuckyWired initiative hopes to change those statistics, we are still at least two to three years away from reliable high-speed, high-capacity Internet in most of Kentucky. There are also the issues of creating online safeguards, availability and some type of archival format for future reference.
How public agencies spend our hard-earned tax money is everyone’s business. Publishing public notices, including school districts’ financial statements, in the newspaper is still the most effective way to ensure availability, accountability and creating a permanent record.