When the 2012 General Assembly convenes next month, expect to see several bills designed to change the time-tested way that people in the commonwealth keep informed about their government.
The bills would change Virginia’s laws on public notices, moving them from the printed pages of newspapers across the commonwealth to electronic websites maintained by local governments.
Public notices are required by a number of statutes, and they cover a wide range of items from foreclosures to public hearings to zoning changes to agency requests for proposals.
Supporters of the change have been introducing these bills for several years, arguing that times have changed and websites provide easy and cheap alternatives to the newspaper system.
The Virginia Press Association, a newspaper-industry trade group of which Virginia Lawyers Weekly is a member, has done the heavy lifting to fight the change to electronic notices, with the able help of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. VPA and VCOG staff members and lobbyists are preparing for another fight this session.
One of their principal arguments, and we think they are right, is that the public has a right to know what the government is doing.
Newspapers have long provided an independent vehicle for publishing information vital to the public. With a notice published by the government on a site maintained the government, there is no check on the government.
Newspapers are delivered to people’s doorsteps or are otherwise widely available. If notices were only on websites, a person would be required to locate a computer (if he or she doesn’t own one) then find the site to review the notices. That’s a reversal of the free flow of information.
Several counties and the Virginia Municipal League are supporting the website bills, arguing that a change will save money for cash-strapped local governments. They no longer would have to pay newspapers for the publication of notices required by statute; they simply would upload the text of a notice and post it.
But any cost savings attributable to a switch to electronic notices is open to debate. Local governments wouldn’t be paying for publication any longer. But they would have to invest in the computer system to support access 24-7. They would have to pay an ongoing salary to a webmaster. They would have to ensure the system was always up and running.
Right now, some local governments do not have official websites, while others are bare-bones. Where will those cities and counties find the money if the measure succeeds? Money is already tight.
Lawyers have relied on printed public notices for generations and with good reason: Lawyers like certainty. When it’s in print, there is a cold record that will not change. When it’s in writing, it can be counted upon.
Proof of publication of notices is required for a number of legal processes, including foreclosures. Lawyers, and their clients, must be able to provide proof that the notice requirements were followed. A newspaper tear sheet serves that role well.
Websites can be hacked.
Websites can go down.
If there is a glitch or a problem with a notice, would local governments be ready to defend the inevitable lawsuits that would be brought by the disappointed or injured parties who placed the notices?
When proof is required, there is no substitute for a printed, unchangeable document.
The current system of publication of public notices in newspapers is dependable and provides certainty and finality. It’s not broken. It doesn’t need changing.