RICHMOND – A legislative subcommittee has defeated two bills that would have allowed local governments to publish legal ads and other public notices on their websites or other venues instead of in local newspapers.
On a 4-7 vote, the subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns defeated House Bill 1438, which would have given localities various alternatives for placing such ads. Those options included the locality’s website, a public access channel, a voice or text alert system and the local library.
The subcommittee then voted 3-8 to defeat HB 1405, which would have given this authorization only to localities with 50,000 or more residents.
The subcommittee’s actions on Wednesday represented a victory for newspapers, which get paid for running public notices. But newspaper officials said it was really a victory for the public – because it will help ensure that people are informed about government meetings, tax increases and other issues contained in the notices.
It would be a “blow to government transparency” to allow governments to post the ads on their websites or air them on a government TV station instead of publishing them in an independent newspaper, said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.
Stanley told legislators that the public knows where to look for notices from the government – in the local newspapers and their website. Removal of the legal ads would cause an outcry from the public, she said.
Matt Paxton, owner of The News Gazette in Lexington, said local governments are unprepared to take over the job of publishing public notices and archiving them as newspapers do.
“We typeset it, we send it for proof, it comes back, we put it in the paper,” he said.
Under the proposed legislation, Paxton said, his weekly paper would not face a big financial hit, but he said his readers would suffer, because they wouldn’t be getting the information they need.
Representatives of local governments supported the bill. They noted that fewer people read newspapers these days. Mark Flynn of the Virginia Municipal League said legal ads posted on a government’s website would reach a younger audience.
Moreover, localities would save money if they didn’t have to place their ads in the newspaper, Flynn said.
That argument was voiced by subcommittee members who voted for HB 1438, which had been proposed by Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, and for HB 1405, sponsored by Del. Christopher Head, R-Roanoke.
“I find it hard to force the city into paying for something to be published like this when there are other means,” said Del. William DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach.
Del. Christopher Stolle, another Republican from Virginia Beach, also voted for both bills. He said newspapers have a monopoly on running legal ads and that there are no assurances that the government is receiving a fair price.
After the subcommittee voted down both bills, Paxton was pleased – but he expects the issue to crop up again. “It’s a well-worn path,” he said, laughing.
Indeed, two bills pending in the Senate would remove the requirement that local governments publish legal ads in local newspapers: SB 841, sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and SB 1256, introduced by Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke. Both measures are awaiting votes in the Senate Committee on Local Government.