Public notice bills killed in House subcommittee

newspaperTwo bills that would change state law allowing localities to expand their options for meeting public notice requirements failed to make it out of a House of Delegates subcommittee this week.

House Counties, Cities and Towns Subcommittee #2 failed to report House Bill 1438 from Staunton Republican Del. Dickie Bell. Bell’s bill would have given localities alternatives to publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the locality for legal ads and other notices of proposed action.

The subcommittee also blocked Del. Christopher T. Head’s HB House Bill 1405 that would allow localities with a population of 50,000 or greater to meet certain notice requirements by utilizing their websites instead of a newspaper of general circulation.

The Virginia Press Association led the effort to fight the bills. In testimony in front of the committee, though, VPA executive director Ginger Stanley conceded that local governments “do need more options” for notifying the public.

“But we can’t take away the one place, the one area that citizens know to go and the one place that can verify this information,” Stanley said. “Newspapers take their role seriously when it comes to publishing, archiving and verifying that a notice was printed when it should be, where it should be.”

Virginia Beach Republican Del. Christopher Stolle said that the state has effectively given newspaper a monopoly on publishing public notices.

“Typically when we grant a monopoly in any area, there some type of regulation on the other side that the monopoly does not gauge the public,” Stolle said. “Would the newspaper be willing to have that type of oversight to ensure that the amount of money being charged for these is fair to the cities?”

Both public notice bills have been filed and defeated in previous years.

Speaking in support of his bill, Bell said “We are in an information age, when a great many people don’t get their information from newspaper. Use as many different mediums we have available to get the notices out.”

Bell was seeking to give localities the option of publishing public notices in a newspaper of general circulation, the locality’s website, on any public access channel operated by the locality, using any automated voice or text alert systems used by the locality, or posting at the local public library.

Matt Paxton, publisher of The News-Gazette in Lexington, and Lawrence McConnell, executive editor of The Roanoke Times, spoke against the bills.

“The newspapers are the gold standard,” Paxton said. “Newspapers are accessible, they are available to anybody.”

Del. Rick Morris, R-Carollton, said he changed his opinion on the bill following an incident in Isle of Wight County. The county stopped publishing legal notices in the weekly Smithfield Times and The Tidewater News and instead published them in another newspaper.

“It was a real outcry in the community,” Morris said. “It would lead a person to believe they wanted less people to see the notices. Maybe it’s not; maybe it is, but it makes me skeptical.

“The local government would absolutely control the information. It’s on their website, then they are responsible for disseminating it. When we have problems with local government, even answering a FOIA request, I am additionally skeptical about them being 100 percent owner of the information.”

– Information from the Virginia Press Association was used in compiling this report