Papers fear public’s at risk if notices move to web
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
February 2, 2011 · Updated 9:16 AM
State lawmakers are considering a set of bills that would drastically change the way counties, cities and towns alert the community about what they’re up to.
The proposals would allow local governments to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers and instead only run the required notices on their websites. The proposed changes are part of larger bills, Senate Bill 5360 and House Bill 1478, aimed at saving local government money.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, (D-Camano), is a co-sponsor of the senate bill, but she’s not sure she supports it in its current form. She said she signed on because she was asked to by a colleague, but also because she has concerns about the efficacy of legal notices in the current newspaper form.
“The size of the print bothers me as much as anything,” Haugen said, adding that they are often written in a jargony style that’s hard to understand. “They could be more user-friendly.”
But Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, said the proposed law change wouldn’t solve Haugen’s concerns, but would make it even more difficult for citizens to find out what their government is doing.
“It would be like a city turning off the traffic lights to save energy,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of penny wise, pound foolish. It’s bad public policy.”
One purpose of mandating local government to run legal notices, Will said, is to ensure that proper and timely notice is given to the community before an action is taken. The legal newspapers provide the government entities with a receipt and then the notice is published in the paper. It’s a permanent record.
“If they hide it on a website somewhere, where’s the proof it was done at the right time and wasn’t changed?” Will asked. “Using newspapers as an honest third party ensures that government is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Of course, many legal newspapers also publish legal notices online for the benefit of the community, but government entities don’t have the ability to change the information after the fact.
In addition, newspaper organizations have expressed concerns about how it might be difficult for residents to search out legal notices from myriad websites, while notices from a variety of entities run together in legal newspapers.
Rep. Barbara Bailey, (R-Oak Harbor), isn’t sure if she supports the proposed change to legal notice requirements, but said it’s an issue she will look into if the bill makes it out of committee. But she said she’s much more supportive of other aspects of the bill that are aimed at helping local government by giving them more time to amend comprehensive plans or comply with bio-fuels rules.
“In lieu of the fact that more local governments are hurting more financially, they do need more time to comply with requirements from the state,” she said.
State law requires that legal notices be published for a wide variety of activities with public interest, including ordinance and zoning changes, certain court activity and announcement of hearings.
Rep. Norma Smith, (R-Clinton), is on the local government committee, which is discussing the bill, but didn’t return phone calls for comment.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.