One public notice bill down, one more to go.
Virginia Press Association and its allies last week defeated HB 95, which would have allowed localities to publish public notices on their own websites rather than in newspapers. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns voted 7-3 against reporting the bill to the full committee.
Dels. Christopher P. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach; Richard L. Morris, R-Isle of Wight; and Bill R. DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach voted in favor of the bill.
Last Thursday's action leaves just one public notice bill remaining in the General Assembly: SB 472 by Sen. Ralph K. Smith, R-Botetourt, which would allow localities to meet certain notice requirements by utilizing their websites, radio or television rather than being limited to a newspaper of general circulation.
This bill has yet to be heard by the Senate Committee on Local Government, which underwent a change in leadership Tuesday when Democrats took control of the Senate.
During the nearly 30-minute discussion last week of HB 95, Stolle said citizens will always know where to go to find public notices if posted on a locality's website.
"From my perspective, this is transparency in government. It does help the citizens figure out where the notice is going to be," he said. "I see this, right now, as a government-mandated subsidy of the newspapers. I don't think we should be dealing with that."
This marks the third consecutive year that Del. Christopher T. Head, R-Botetourt, has filed the bill and it has been defeated. Head argued for the option to publish public notices online rather than newspapers because of struggles facing the newspaper industry. He said readership is declining, while use of the internet surges.
At one point he declared: "Print media is absolutely dying," and noted that the web is an alternate source to newspapers.
"When fewer and fewer people are using that particular medium, as an area of transparency, versus the millions and millions of eyes that are available on the website, you're asking to be transparent through a peephole or through a panoramic window," Head said.
His bill had the support of local government groups the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties. Representatives of Leesburg and Prince William, Roanoke and Fairfax counties also spoke in favor of the bill.
Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley led the opposition to the bill, noting that newspapers are not dead because audience across all platforms is up.
"The legal advertisements let residents know ahead of time that their elected representatives will be making those decisions on their behalf and they have a right to show up, ask questions and express their opinions before it's too late," Stanley read from a Roanoke Times editorial published January 22. "It's a tried and true method of communication that has worked for generations."
Joining VPA in opposition of the bill were representatives of the Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro Chapter; the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia
"We think it impacts the public's right to know and to get information about what their government is doing. Newspapers are independent and provide a watchdog function," said Paul Fletcher, immediate past president of the SPF Virginia Pro Chapter. "If you have localities placing notices on their own sites, you have a fox watching the henhouse."