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Murphy’s Law — Executive Director Jack Murphy’s MDDC Update for Feb. 21, 2013

MDDC, AARP Fight Continued Efforts to Limit Public's Access to Mandatory Legal Notices
By Jack Murphy

A representative of the Maryland AARP and a panel from MDDC testified Tuesday against a bill that would allow cities and counties to post public notices on their own websites before a Senate committee Tuesday, and received a generally positive reception from the members toward our arguments.
Joining me on the MDDC panel in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee were Karen Acton, CEO of the Gazette and Southern Maryland newspapers, and Geordie Wilson, publisher of the Frederick News Post. Tammy Bresnahan represented AARP.
SB 523 was introduced by Sen. Ron Young of Frederick and is supported by Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League and many of their members. Local officials were the only witnesses in favor of the bill. It would allow local governments to stop putting many forms of notice into newspapers, would require them to archive the notices properly, and would require them to mail notices to any resident requesting them.
In our written testimony, we told the senators:
“The state should not end the historic requirement to publish this vital information in the format that is most secure, most likely to be read by the greatest number of citizens, and the most financially efficient for local governments.”
We pointed out that government websites are frequently the targets of hackers. We reported that several recent surveys showed that many elderly, poor and minority citizens do not use the Internet, and that rural residents often do not have high-speed access. And we noted that the Fiscal Note for the bill reported that many local governments would pay more to mail out the notices than they would to advertise in newspapers.
Bresnahan of AARP echoed our concerns that senior citizens would not be able to access notices on the web, because more than half do not use the Internet. She said it was too soon to consider dropping newspaper advertising, though it would likely be appropriate at some point in the future.
The proponents’ main argument is that with declining newspaper circulation, fewer people read newspapers. We answered that newspaper readership in print and online is higher than ever, and that far fewer people look to local government websites than to newspapers.
Wilson told the committee that the City of Frederick’s website reported 40,000 page views in a recent month, but the News Post website had more page views than that in a single day. And he emphasized that all public notice that appear in the newspaper are also posted on the website.
Wilson shared the results of a recent readership survey with the committee in his written testimony:
“The print edition of The News-Post is read by about 70,000 (36 percent) of the approximately 194,000 adults in Frederick County and adjacent towns on any given day. Over the course of a week, the print edition is read by about 120,000 people (62 percent) in our market area.
“That means that in a single day our print edition reaches more people than the city's website attracts in four months, according to Quantcast.com. Over the course of a week, our print readership exceeds that achieved by the city's website in more than seven months.”
Acton testified that Internet access was especially problematic in rural areas, such as St. Mary’s County, where many people have to rely on dial-up services, or have no access at all. Sen. Roy Dyson, vice chair of the committee, supported her assertion, noting that some people living within a couple of miles of the Patuxent naval base cannot access the Internet at home.
Sen. Karen Montgomery told the proponents that many seniors in her district rely on the newspaper for all information, and that they read the legal notices as well. When her own name was on the comptroller’s abandoned property list, three older constituents called to tell her about it. She urged the proponents to withdraw the bill and come back to the legislature in two to five years.
Chairman Joan Carter Conway said she agreed that too many people would not see notices if they were only placed online.
The cross-filed version of the bill will be heard next Thursday in the House Environmental Matters Committee. We will have the same panel testifying.
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