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Keep public notices in newspapers, not buried online

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Jan. 27, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
January 27, 2011 5:05 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

If you have a spare moment, look at today’s classified ads, specifically a category called “Legals.”

In recent days, that category has informed the public of actions being taken by the Bethel School District; the state of Washington; Pierce County; a local fire protection district; the cities of Sumner, Lakewood and Tacoma; and many other jurisdictions. The information is also published on the newspaper’s website.

But legislation introduced in both houses of the Legislature could make that a thing of the past. Now required to post public notices in local newspapers, jurisdictions would be allowed to post them on their own websites – which would require the public to search each site individually for information they need.

While the legislation is now limited to cities and counties, it likely would just be the first step. State agencies and local bodies such as ports, fire and school districts, and utilities surely would demand equal treatment.

Public notice, at that point, will not be very public at all. Citizens who want to know what local and state government is doing will have to go on website safaris to uncover information ranging from meeting announcements and liquor licenses to property foreclosures.

Not everyone has access to a computer or has the skills needed to navigate many different websites that display information in different ways. And public agencies that, say, don’t really want a lot of people showing up for a particular meeting or knowing about a controversial action could make that information very hard to find.

The state also could be hurt financially. Now, when a newspaper publishes legal notices, it provides an affidavit of publication to the agency which it can show as proof that it has complied with state public notice law. There will be no such proof if agencies post notices on their own websites – and open them up to litigation from citizens.

We acknowledge a financial interest in this legislation. If it passes, it would be a blow to newspapers’ bottom line, including The News Tribune’s, at a time when many are just barely hanging on. It would be particularly devastating for small community newspapers in rural, low-income areas.

More important, though, the public’s right to know about the machinations of government will be severely curtailed. As recently as 2009, a Pulse Research poll conducted for the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association found that 86 percent of those who responded agreed that legal notices should be published in their newspaper; 53 percent said they or someone in their household regularly read those notices.

State lawmakers should heed the public’s will and continue requiring that public notices run in local newspapers. Local co-sponsors of the legislation – Rep. Katrina Asay, R-Milton, and Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn – should rethink their position.

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