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VPA Opposes Public Notice Bills

The Virginia Press Association is opposing two House bills written to allow local Va. governments to skirt the legal requirement to publish their public notices in local newspapers. Instead, lawmakers are pushing to allow legal notices on proprietary government websites.
As reported by Capital News Service‘s Michael Schuster in the Star-Tribune of Chatham, Va., the association says the bills are a threat to the public’s access to government information.
“We’re just not to the point where this is a sensible decision,” said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the VPA. “Newspapers have permanence, and websites can easily crash or be hacked into.”
Legislators and officials in other states, including Maryland, have attempted to pass similar bills to relax legal requirements that all legal ads be printed in a regional newspaper or paper of record.
In Virginia, Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg, Va.) proposed House Bill (HB) 1378 to afford localities in Virginia to publish the notices on a secured government website instead of a paper. Some Va. officials point to alleged savings in defending the proposed legislation. Cole says technological trends dictate his sponsorship.
“We’re just moving from a paper environment to an electronic environment, and we want to move forward with 21st century technology,” Cole told Schuster.
Opponents say government websites can be unreliable and point out the lack of universal Internet access to the public. They also say website posts do not have the same authenticity of a legal ad from an independent newspaper.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government spoke in supports of the VPA on the issue.
“Some areas in Virginia do not have Internet capabilities, and print-based methods are more thorough and easily reached by a larger number of people,” said Megan Rhyne, the coalition’s executive director.
A similar measure, HB 1373, sponsored by Del. Christopher Head (R-Roanoke), would allow localities with at least 50,000 residents meet the public notice requirements by utilizing their websites, radio or television systems.
VPA argued otherwise in person while the subcommittee voted to combine HB 1373 and HB 1378.
“Last year, the town of Damascus spent $723 on print-based public articles, which provided more than 2 million views,” Stanley said. “The cost of printing public notices in the paper is very low, and the ability to reach such far-extending populations has been proven.”

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