Our View: Promoting open government
October 2, 2013
The Steamboat Springs Planning Department recommends changes to reduce the number of public notices printed in the newspaper
Change would result in less government transparency.
The Steamboat Springs Planning Department is recommending changes to the way it notifies the public about pending projects. City planning commissioners held a work session last week to discuss a staff proposal that would shift the public notice process to a more Web-centric approach and away from public notices in the newspaper.
We applaud the Planning Department's desire to provide more information to Steamboat Springs residents about projects that could impact their property and neighborhoods through a more interactive website, but the department's proposal to cut back on public notices misses the mark.
The overriding purpose of the proposed changes, as stated by city planning officials, is to improve the public notification system in reaction to complaints from residents who claimed they weren't properly informed about projects that were being proposed in their neighborhoods.
The creation of a new searchable Web page, which would provide a map and a list of current projects, is an idea we support and a positive move forward, with the caveat that the city must weigh the financial impacts of such a project. We also believe the department's plan to notify individual property owners in multiowner units rather than just the homeowners association is another welcome change.
But the department's proposal to reduce the number of public notices it publishes in the newspaper flies in the face of its intended purpose of improved communication and more transparency.
Let us be clear. The Steamboat Pilot & Today receives revenue from public notices the city planning department places in the newspaper, but our argument against a reduction in these notices is not financially motivated. Instead, we view public notices as fundamental to open government and the public's overarching right to know about what that government is doing.
Under the proposal discussed last week, the number of project types that would require a public notice in the newspaper would drop from 19 to six. Among the print notices that would be eliminated are those for development plans, change in use, vacation home rental permits, telecommunications facilities and preliminary and final plats — all projects whose impact reaches far beyond the 100- or 300-foot boundary of surrounding property owners who are notified by mail about such projects.
The Planning Department's proposed changes concerning public notices would not violate the state statutes that govern public notices, but the recommended revisions would go against the spirit of the law.
As Steamboat Springs' primary news source, the Pilot & Today is where people look first for information, and public notices are a key tool for residents to keep up with their local government. The Pilot & Today also publishes legal notices online so the reach extends beyond the print edition and far exceeds the number of people who would view the notices if they were relegated to sole publication on the city's website.
At the work session, most planning commissioners expressed a desire to offer more, rather than fewer, notices about pending projects. We are encouraged about the commissioners' initial response, and we urge them to think long and hard before they consider a change that would result in less transparency and could lead to an erosion of public trust.