Public notices: a PUBLIC issue

The Roanoke Times wrote this editorial today saying that governments should post notices of special public meetings in the newspapers, not just on government websites, libraries or text alerts.

First, a clarification. We're talking here about those statutorily mandated public hearing meetings, like the ones held before certain zoning decisions are made, or for school redistricting, etc. We're not talking about the ordinary-course-of-business meetings of councils, boards or commissions.

Advance public notice of these latter meetings is governed by FOIA. The former meetings (or hearings) are governed by other parts of the Code of Virginia, and usually affect a specific project, a distinct piece of property or certain process.

The Roanoke Times correctly points out that "The newspaper ad is the only permanent, third-party way to circulate a notice broadly. The others all are open to abuse by public officials with lax standards for meeting legal notification requirements. A webpage's time stamp can be altered; a broadcast announcement is ephemeral."

The paper also admits that it has a financial interest in the continuation of these public notice ads. Some may thus dismiss the newspaper's concerns as mere self-interest.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government has no such interest, though. Our coalition of members represent media, yes, but more so, we represent citizens, advocacy organizations, government groups, elected officials and more. Our 27-member board reserves a majority of its seats (15) for at-large members of the public. Two of our four elected officers work in government.

Despite our lack of financial interest in the publication of public notices in the newspapers, the VCOG board of directors has repeatedly supported the current practice of required newspaper publication.

As recently as October, the VCOG board reaffirmed its position that "the placement of legal notices in newspapers remains important to providing the broadest publication of vital information to residents."

The board was particularly concerned with the impact the move away from print publication would have on rural areas underserved by Internet service (to say nothing of broadband access).

I'll be writing more on the reasons for why we would oppose measures to make newspaper publication option, for now though, we want to make clear that this is NOT a media issue. This is a PUBLIC issue.

The best way to reach the broadest swath of the public is to continue publishing public notices in the state's newspapers.


What actions require public hearings and what actions do not?

I never quite understood the criteria that is used to require a public hearing.

Is this is the Va code somewhere?

Larry - these hearings are sprinkled throughout the Code. Here is a link to the bill that was introduced last year. It attempts to (and I assumed does) include all the meetings/hearings where public notices are required.

You'll see that the bill says that governments should pick 2 of 5 methods of public notice, one of which can be notice in the newspaper. Though this bill was defeated, the Governor's Reform Commission is recommending the same principle and repeat legislation will probably be on the 2011 General Assembly agenda.

From my personal experience (avid iPad reader - read RTD, Washington Post & NYT this AM) and from asking a lot of folks how they get their news, I am now convinced that newspaper publication of notices is no longer an effective manner of getting notice to a large part of the citizens government serves. Significant sections of the population are simply not turning to physical newspapers for news and certainly are not turning to papers for advertising.

Farmers sell hay via Craigslist - a single example of the paper not being used for advertisements.

The very high advertising rate is not the main issue. Newspaper advertising more and more leaves substantial portions of the population with no notice - because we aren't reading physical newspapers in today's world.

Mark - I don't disagree that more and more people are turning to alternative sources of information. But I think it's too easy as education urban professionals to assume that everyone connects to information in the same gadget-friendly ways we do.

People like us who use iPads and Craigslist will still have access to papers if we want it. The same cannot be said for those citizens -- and there are a LOT of them, especially the older set, minorities and those in rural areas without broadband -- that will not turn to technology if their newspaper access is cut off.

What is wrong with a transition period where we keep newspaper publication AND other electronic means?

I'd also note that even though we may use iPads and mobile devices as the way we get/read the news, we're still going to traditional news sources (Washington Post, Times-Dispatch) to get our news (even the younger set). These publications carry the public notices online, too. It may be a bit misleading to say that because people aren't turning to PHYSICAL newspapers then they're not relying on newspapers for their news.

If newspapers are such a great way to communicate, why isn't this discourse taking place on the pages of the newspaper? Because the newspapers charge too much for the space. I would like those that choose how to spend my tax dollars frivolously on public notices in newspapers to make the same choice. Two other suggestions ... 1.) If newspapers are so intent on transparency, let's let them open up their books and run the public notices for what their marginal costs of the paper and distribution are. We would save about 80% of what we are now charged. Having worked in publishing newspapers for 25 years, public notices are one of the newspaper industry's highest margin revenue streams. or 2.) take the publishing out of the hands of the local government, and put out for public bid the on-line publication of notices. A site in NY, where publication of llc notices is mandatory and costs a fortune, has taken on the publication of notices for free.

I note that HB 586 (2010) did not seek to amend §8.01-324, Newspapers which may be used for legal notices and publications. The requirements of this section include that the newspaper must have "a bona fide list of paying subscribers" and a second class mailing permit, and be published at least weekly. There are some exceptions allowed by that law, but they seem very narrow.

So a specalized local newspaper that does not meet these requirements may be the print publication that most of the locality's residents rely on for detailed news, ads and other information specific to their area, and the local government may regularly advertise in that paper to effectively (and efficiently) reach its citizens, but the publication requirements of state law are only met by placing the ad in paper with a more traditional publication schedule and paid, mail circulation. (Who gets their papers by MAIL anymore??)

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <h2> <h3> <h4>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.