Government is not a private business; it is our business, carried out by men and women we elect to do it.
I have written before about the Virginia Gazette's support of transparency in government, in how it behaves in everything from scheduling meetings to hiring people to spending tax money.
Several mechanisms are in place that aid that transparency — the Freedom of Information Act and publishing legal notices are two big ones.
FOIA is a law that covers the public's right to see and read records created while conducting public business — in council chambers, school offices, courthouses and police departments to name a few. Much of that business is carried out in open meetings. There is an open meetings component to the law that sets out the types of business that can be done behind closed doors, out of sight of the public. Those exceptions include things like discussing pending legal matters.
The other critical way to track what government is up to is through public notices. There is a legal requirement that public notices of government activities be published as paid advertisements in newspapers so that citizens can easily stay informed as to what that government is doing. These notices have been published in newspapers for more than 200 years.
Public notices are published on business and licensing matters, public meetings, zoning, requests for proposals, local government matters and elections. They help citizens learn about their government's plans and possible actions that will affect them and the rest of the community.
Each year when the General Assembly meets in Richmond to conduct our business, inevitably bills are introduced to limit government's transparency.
This year is no exception.
A troubling, and recurring, aspect to this year's happenings regards public notices.
Elected officials have again proposed taking public notices out of newspapers and posting them only on government websites. Instead of reading notices in newspapers that are delivered regularly, citizens would have to search for notices on websites, something that would be even more difficult for those without computer access.
The Virginia Press Association, the industry group representing news organizations working in the state, commissioned a survey last fall seeking to determine whether citizens use public notices.
This telephone survey of 501 adults found that 94 percent of respondents said that keeping the citizenry informed by using public notices/legal advertisements in newspapers is an important function of government agencies.
In addition, 63 percent of respondents said that they would read public notices much less often (36 percent) or less often (27 percent) if these were placed only on government websites. And, 72 percent of respondents have never gone to a government website to read a public notice. The survey has margin of error of plus/minus 4.4 percent.
There was much more to the survey — including questions about how trustworthy people view the information on a government website as opposed to the information published in the newspaper — but the bottom line is the same: public notices need to stay where they are, in your newspaper. That is the easiest, most reliable way to keep track of what our government is doing in our name.
If you agree, it's time to take action. It's time to reach out to your elected representatives and tell them that you want public notices to continue to be published in the Virginia Gazette. It's time to make it clear that you want them to vote against any bill that would remove public notices from newspapers. It's time to ensure government remains the public's business.
Here is who you need to contact:
Sen. Tommy Norment, (R-3rd)
District office: 757-259-7810
Richmond office: 804-698-7503
Sen. John Miller, (D-1st)
District office: 757-595-1100
Richmond office: 804-698-7501
Del. Brenda Pogge, (R-96th)
District office: 757-223-9690
Richmond office: 804-698-1096
Del. Monty Mason, (D-93rd)
District office: 757-229-9310
Richmond office: 804-698-1093