NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Newspapers are vital to protecting public’s ‘right to know’ — or should be, at least

One of the driving forces behind the operation of newspapers in the United States is the public’s right to know. But the Indiana Department of Environmental Management wants to stop using newspapers to inform Hoosiers about issues that could have a significant impact on their health, and their alternative proposal flies in the face of maintaining an open and transparent government.

IDEM has for decades been required to provide public notices in local newspapers to notify Hoosiers of air quality permit applications. That way the public can be aware if a potential air-polluter seeks a permit. But now the state’s environmental regulators want to eliminate the requirement to publish those applications in newspapers. The proposal will go before the Environmental Rules Board for a vote on Nov. 14. stands with the Hoosier State Press Association in asking the board to reject the proposal.

Instead of using newspapers, IDEM wants to list those applications on its own website to inform the public. IDEM’s argument is that making this change will expand public access to permit-related documents and decisions because more people are using the internet. However, IDEM’s website receives only about 100 unique visitors a week, says the HSPA, while more than 3 million Hoosiers read a newspaper or newspaper website each week. You do the math.

“This decision would be in contradiction of Gov. Holcomb’s pledge to deliver ‘great government service,’ ” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, told the Indianapolis Star. ‘Keeping large swathes of Hoosiers in the dark is the opposite of great government service.’

The Environmental Rules Board held its public hearing Aug. 8, according to Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel who attended and testified against the proposal. “All 50 states use newspapers to publish public notices,” Key told the board. “Indiana has done so since it became a state in 1816.”

Key acknowledges that there may be some legitimate complaints about the process that make the publication of these notices in newspapers more work than it needs to be. But he argues that service issues, which HSPA is willing to address for IDEM, do not justify depriving the public of the most effective means of notifying them about applications that could affect their health. Key testified that a government website is not where the public wants or expects to find public notices. More than 23 percent of Hoosiers, the Indianapolis Star reported, do not use or have access to the internet, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Furthermore, when IDEM initially proposed the change last fall, it received 553 responses during its first public comment period — 551 asked IDEM to continue publishing the notices in newspapers. Of 54 comments in the second public comment period, 52 were opposed.

American Opinion Research conducted a survey of Hoosiers last summer, said Key, in which it found that 60 percent of adults said they read public notices, and 63 percent said government agencies should be required to publish them. “It’s disappointing,” Key said, “that the board didn’t see fit to kill this proposal that does nothing to improve government transparency – only hide information in plain sight because Hoosiers do not and will not seek out the IDEM website to learn if a local business seeks permission to pollute the air.”

We agree.