Bills have been introduced in the state House and Senate to give counties and cities the option of publishing their legal notices on their websites, instead of in their designated legal newspapers.
This is bad public policy and a step backward from full government accountability to the citizens they disseminate information to and serve.
If the local governments succeed in what they are calling a cost-saving measure, look for state agencies, fire districts, ports, fire districts and public utility districts to seek the same treatment.
The money saved by dropping newspaper legal notices doesn’t amount to much — an estimated 0.20 to 0.25 percent of their annual budgets — and is far overshadowed by the huge downside for citizens who need and deserve the right to what their local government is doing on their behalf.
For those who say that legal notices printed in newspapers is an outdated method for delivering public notice information, guess again. A 2009 readership survey for the Washington Newspaper Association by Pulse Research showed that 86 percent of those responding agreed that agencies should be required to publish legal notices in their newspapers. A majority of respondents — 53 percent — said they or members of their family read public notices in their newspapers.
Passage of this measure would lead to less, not more, open government. Many people, especially senior citizens, don’t have a computer or easy access to the internet.
Local governments would be left to police themselves on whether they met the requirements of the state’s public notice laws. Did they announce their public hearing in a timely manner and the required number of times? Was the information accurate and not altered online? Under the existing public notice process, newspapers provide proof that the public-notice requirements are met.
Finally, if the state legislators are serious about preserving and growing private sector jobs, they won’t siphon off revenue from small weeklies and dailies that rely in part on legal notice business to stay afloat.
It’s easy to forget that government employees are the citizens’ employees. They have a paramount responsibility to keep their bosses – the public – fully informed of their decisions and activities. This legislation shuffles the task of public notification down to a lower list of government priorities. That is not the message governments should be sending in these challenging times.