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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Public Notices Can be Effective Anti-Waste Tool in Keeping Hurricane Recovery Spending Honest

With as much as $200 billion in federal tax dollars slated to be spent helping the Gulf Coast states recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, lots of citizens wonder what measures officials are taking to prevent massive waste and fraud in the recovery spending.

I asked Matthew Erwin of the Public Notice Resource Center for his thoughts on the issue and he pointed out that the old tried-and-true posting of a public notice in the local newspaper can be quite effective in keeping things on the up and up.

And he points to the Legal Services Corporation as an example of a federal agency that did exactly that:

"The past month has seen disaster of historic proportions inflicted on the Gulf Coast of the United States, first by Hurricane Katrina and most recently, by Hurricane Rita. In the wake of these disasters, the U.S. government has appropriated record amounts of disaster relief money to the affected regions. To date, more than $60 billion dollars has been appropriated, with more expected before Congress adjourns.

"Much concern about expenditures of this size without serious and binding accountability measures has been expressed by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and not a few taxpayer advocates.

"Measures ranging from bipartisan commissions to Inspectors General have been proposed. Congress has overlooked the most traditional and effective system of ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent as intended - direct involvement of the public.

"If the concern is that fraud, abuse and mismanagement will plague the hurricane relief efforts, what better policing system could there be than the eyes and ears of the people owed the outcomes?

"The mechanism used by American government since colonial days is the public notice. Published locally and read by millions of readers a day, these notices today alert the public to many activities of state and local governments. Budgets, zonings, bid solicitations, insolvencies, foreclosures and a host of other matters reach the public primarily through these notices.

"One tried and true method of protecting against inside deals, for example, is the publication of the bid notice. By requiring the federal government to award contracts competitively and publicly, not only are the taxpayers brought into the discussion on the lowest price for any goods or services, but they are able to examine exactly how their money is being spent and on what projects, and to whom the project is awarded.

"By using public notices in the expenditures on Katrina aid and reconstruction, Congress could require a direct response avenue included in the notice - such as a website address - back to oversight bodies to give the public a way to sound alerts.

"Using public notices and competitive bidding to curb waste and fraud in a federal agency is not a new idea. In 1974, the Legal Services Corporation was to help provide civil legal assistance to citizens who could not otherwise afford it.

"However, throughout the 1980s, charges of cronyism and corruption and use of funds for political purposes haunted the Corporation. In the early 1990s, a bipartisan coalition of legislators began working on reforms. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-FL, cited the need for competitive bidding to curb 'extensive abuses within the Legal Services Corporation.'

"In 1996, a number of reforms, including the competitive bidding and public notice requirements, took effect. With new rules in place, the Legal Services Corporation was on notice that Congress was watching. In the words of Mauricio Vivero, former Vice President of Government Relations for the LSC, the LSC went 'from renegade agency to institution of justice.'

"However Congress balances the need for quick injections of money into the disaster area with an equal need for efficiency, effectiveness and sound oversight, the mechanisms that result must involve a public that is keenly interested in all aspects of the predicament in Louisiana and Mississippi. Public notices do the trick.

"Critics will argue that the expense and difficulty of reaching the public through the traditional notice vehicle - local newspapers - outweighs the benefits. But public notices in the magnitudes of public funds being discussed here would be so fractional in cost that they would barely register on the fiscal scale. And a variety of private services, from state press associations to national order-taking entities, now exist to handle multiple placements with a single transaction to the government.

"With all that is at stake in getting the decisions right in this expenditure, Congress owes it to the taxpayers to put in place multiple assurances that the billions of dollars in disaster aid are benefiting the public and not being wasted or abused. Public notices and competitive bidding have been proven to make government more effective in the past, and if given the chance, they will do so again."

Matthew Erwin is executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center. The mission of the Public Notice Resource Center is to collect, analyze, and disseminate information on public and private notifications to the public through local newspapers, and to educate the public on the value and use of its right to know. For more information, go to www.pnrc.net.