Last of six public notice bills fails in Senate

Members of the Virginia Press Association oppose two House bills that would let local governments post their public notices online instead of publishing them in local newspapers.

Update #1 — February 22, 2013; 7:15 AM

By Michael Schuster | Capital News Service

A Senate committee voted 10-3 to kill the last bill this legislative session to let public bodies post their official notices on a government website instead of publishing them in a local newspaper.

House Bill 1823, introduced by Delegate Ronald Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach), sought to require public bodies to post procurement notices and bids on the electronic website of the Virginia Department of General Services. Publishing such notices in a newspaper would have been optional.

The legislation passed the House on a 73-25 vote on Feb. 1st. The bill then was referred to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology. On Monday, the committee recommended that the measure be “passed by indefinitely,” meaning it is dead for this session.

Representatives of the Virginia Press Association and Virginia Coalition for Open Government were some of the strongest opponents of such bills.

VPA officials said they were mostly concerned with keeping citizens informed about government actions. Not every citizen has Internet access, especially in rural areas of Virginia. The VPA’s main goal was to keep public notices in print-based newspapers in order to keep the issues in the public eye.

Public notices include announcements about government budgets, public hearings and alcohol beverage licenses. Six public notice bills were heard in the 2013 spring session and every one of them failed.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of VCOG, was satisfied with the defeat of the public notice bills.

“I’m pleased that most of the General Assembly members who heard these bills agreed that the public would be better served with public notices remaining in newspapers,” Rhyne said.

She predicted that some lawmakers will continue to push to move these public announcements to the Internet.

“There will likely be more attempts because hard-pressed localities are looking for ways to minimize costs,” Rhyne said.” But at the same time, we know that a cost is not worth cutting if it means we are informing fewer taxpayers about how their tax dollars are going to be spent.”

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Public Notices Bills and their Fate

The General Assembly considered six bills to ease or remove the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers. Here are the proposals and what happened to them:

  • HB1378, to allow localities with at least 50,000 residents to advertise public notices on their websites or broadcast outlets instead of in local newspapers. This bill was folded into a similar measure, HB1373. HB1373 then was defeated 1-10 by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities, and Towns.
  • HB1426, to allow the towns of Damascus and Glade Spring in southwest Virginia to publish legal notices on their websites instead of in the local newspapers. It was defeated 4-7 by the same subcommittee.
  • SB765, an identical proposal regarding Damascus and Glade Spring. It was defeated 3-11 by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology.
  • HB2170, requiring local governments to publish procurement notices on the state’s central electronic procurement website and making newspaper publication option. This bill was folded into HB1823, which was then killed by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology.

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Original — January 21, 2013

Michael Schuster | Capital News Service

At their annual lobbying day, members of the Virginia Press Association opposed two House bills that would let local governments post their public notices on their websites instead of publishing them in local newspapers.

The VPA, which represents the state’s newspapers, says the bills are a threat to the public’s access to government information.

“We’re just not to the point where this is a sensible decision,” said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the VPA. “Newspapers have permanence, and websites can easily crash or be hacked into.”

Public notices are official announcements about public hearings, government contracts, proposed laws, zoning applications, court proceedings, and other matters. By law, governments must publish these notices in local newspapers; you’ll often find them in the classified-ads section.

But in recent years, legislators and other state officials have been pushing to relax or remove the requirement that these legal ads be printed in the paper. For example, House Bill 1378, proposed by Delegate Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would allow localities in Virginia to publish the notices on a secured government website instead. That’s one of the bills opposed by the VPA.

Some state officials would like to move the notices online to save money – and because fewer people are reading newspapers.

Cole says his bill is a logical step in keeping with technological trends.

“We’re just moving from a paper environment to an electronic environment, and we want to move forward with 21st century technology,” Cole said.

Opponents of HB 1378 argue that government websites can be unreliable and that not everyone has Internet access. They also say a website posting does not have the authenticity of a printed legal advertisement. They say governmental notices should be printed by an independent entity – the local newspaper.

In addition, opponents say that without proper management, online information can be altered by hackers or other people. Public notices printed in a newspaper are more readily available for all citizens, the VPA said in its 2013 “Capitol Discussions” pamphlet.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which promotes transparency in government, supports the VPA on the issue.

“Some areas in Virginia do not have Internet capabilities, and print-based methods are more thorough and easily reached by a larger number of people,” said Megan Rhyne, the coalition’s executive director.

On Thursday, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns discussed HB 1378 and a similar measure, HB 1373, by Delegate Christopher Head, R-Roanoke. Head’s bill would let localities with at least 50,000 residents meet the public notice requirements by utilizing their websites, radio or television systems.

Proponents say their proposals would save local governments money. However, the VPA and its allies attended Thursday’s meeting to argue otherwise.

“Last year, the town of Damascus spent $723 on print-based public articles, which provided more than 2 million views,” Stanley said. “The cost of printing public notices in the paper is very low, and the ability to reach such far-extending populations has been proven.”

On a voice vote of 11-0, the subcommittee combined HB 1373 and HB 1378. The panel is looking to revise wording of the legislation so localities would have the option of publishing public notices in print or on the Web.

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