The public's right to know has come to the forefront in recent weeks as the community has struggled to find out more information about the Mifflin County Regional Police Board of Directors and its decision to investigate Chief William Herkert.
The board placed Herkert on paid administrative leave, effective Sept. 18. What resulted was a public outcry into how that decision was reached, how the investigation is being conducted and to what information members of the public are entitled.
In essence, these looming questions revolve around two key tenets of a democratic government: open meetings and open records.
The Sentinel in recent days has provided articles, editorials and supplemental resources to help educate the public about those tenets. Thrust into the spotlight have been Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, which deals with accessing public documents, and the Sunshine Act, which deals with the public's right to attend government meetings.
At The Sentinel, we also are celebrating National Newspaper Week, which concludes Sunday. The theme this year is about the important role public notices play in keeping government open and accessible to all.
In regard to the Herkert situation, the board held a special meeting on Oct. 2. Notice of that meeting had to be advertised in the local paper, The Sentinel. As a result of that notice and subsequent news coverage prior to the meeting, there was a large crowd in attendance.
Members of the public had the opportunity to participate in the special meeting and to express their views as a result of the public notice process.
That's the way good government should work. As we wrap up this week, I would like to share five questions and answers about public notices:
1) What is a public notice?
A public notice is information informing citizens of government or government-related activities that affect citizens' everyday lives.
2) Why do we need public notices?
An important premise found in both federal and local governments is that information about government activities must be accessible in order for the electorate to make well-informed decisions. Public notices in newspapers provide this sort of accessibility to citizens who want to know more about government activities.
3) What is the history of public notices?
The history of public notice begins long before the emergence of newspapers. The concept has existed since early civilizations posted notices in public squares. This crude method was eventually refined with the publication of the first English language newspaper in 1665 - a court newspaper called The Oxford Gazette.
In America, the Acts of the First Session of the First Congress in 1789 required that all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers.
Upholding the public's right to know has been essential to our country's way of life since day one. Our government governs with the consent of people, and this consent must be informed.
4) What are some examples of a public notices?
There are many kinds of public notices. Publication of proposed budgets for local governments, notices of local government hearings, bid notices, board and agency meeting minutes and pre-election notices are just a few examples.
5) Are newspapers the most effective vehicle for public notices?
Public notices published in newspapers ensures readership by those most likely to be interested in or affected by the notices. Plus, the notices arrive at readers' homes or places of work in a newspaper filled with local news and information that compels readership.
Heather Goodwin Henline is managing editor of The Sentinel. She may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 248-6741, ext 119.