There are some local government actions that the legislature has said are important enough that they must have a special hearing. Often a public comment period must be included, which is not the case for ordinary public meetings.
For decades, the legislature has required that notice of these special hearings (called “public notices”) be published in the local newspaper because that has been the best way to reach the most people, and the biggest cross-section of any given community.
Basically, public notice is information alerting citizens of government or government-related activities that may cause a citizen to take action. When citizens know what their government is proposing to do, they can more fully participate in the process. That participation is a cornerstone in our system of representative democracy. That’s why, to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government Board of Directors, public notice issues are synonymous with public access issues. It’s all about the citizens’ right to know.
There’s been a steady drumbeat among some lawmakers over the past several years to make publication of public notices in newspapers optional, not mandatory. (And just to get this out of the way: this is not a Republican/Democrat issue -- patrons of these bills have resided on both sides of the aisle.)
They are of the belief that public notices cost localities too much (newspapers charge to run the ads), and that the printed newspaper is quickly becoming a thing of the past, i.e., they’re not the medium for reaching the most people that they once were.
The bills differ by varying degrees, but they all have one element in common: they would allow, as an alternative to newspaper publication, publication of public notices on government websites.
We find this alternative problematic for several reasons:
- There is still a digital divide between old and young, rich and poor, tech-savvy and Luddites, as well as among minorities. Rural localities are not reliably served by broadband Internet service. It may be difficult for a citizen of a locality as wired and affluent as Fairfax to imagine that there are places where not only is computer ownership is low, but dial-up access to the Internet is almost as common as broadband options.
- Local government websites vary widely from locality to locality, and there would be no consistency from one jurisdiction to the next on where to find these notices. As one of our board members, himself a government employee, stated, “I can put anything on our website, but it doesn’t mean you can find it.”
- Publication through government websites (as well as through text alerts, another proposed alternative to newspaper publication) will likely reach only citizens who are already engaged in the process. Newspapers, on the other hand, reach people who may not be actively following their government but who are nonetheless interested in a particular action: “Oh, look, there’s a hearing on a proposal to route a new road right next to my grandmother’s house.”
- Publication on government websites narrowly defines the affected or interested market by geographic boundaries, rather than communities of interest. That is, the City of Falls Church may post a public notice about an upcoming sale of unclaimed property in the police’s possession (§15.2-1719). Despite the very real possibility that some of that property could belong to citizens in neighboring Fairfax or Arlington Counties, all of whom would be served by the Washington Post, Washington Times or Fairfax Journal, only Falls Church would be publishing the notice.
Newspapers serve as independent confirmation that statutory notice provisions have been complied with, too. For example, in November a circuit court judge voided the Town of Dendron’s decision to move forward on a new electrical power station in the area when it was pointed out that the public notice did not comply with the statutory requirements. The notice as published in the Sussex-Surry Dispatch was the basis of the judge’s decision. Had the notice been published on the government website, it might have been altered or replaced after the initial improper notice.
We also are concerned that because newspaper-publication has been the norm for so long, there is a real danger of leaving even engaged citizens in the dark: “Where are the notices that used to be in the newspaper?” Ironically, when Tennessee proposed removing legal notices from newspapers, they proposed informing the public of this change...by notifying them in the newspaper!
We urge you to contact your delegate or senator to express your opposition to bills making newspaper publication of public notices optional. (Because the bills have been assigned to a number of different committees and subcommittees, there’s a good chance that just about every delegate, and most senators, will have the chance to vote on these bills.) And if you do contact your elected official, please consider copying us on your message so that we can refer to citizen input in our comments.
Additionally, IF YOU ARE WILLING TO TESTIFY BEFORE A LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE ABOUT YOUR USE OF OR RELIANCE ON PUBLIC NOTICES, PLEASE CONTACT ME! Citizen testimony can make a big impact on legislators who are tired of hearing from the same lobbyist-talking heads.