VPA opposes moving public notices online

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.

To track or comment on the bills involving public notices, visit the Richmond Sunlight website: http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2013/hb1373/ and http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2013/hb1378/
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