Legal notices vital for an informed citizenry
If someone living just down the street planned to open a business that might change the nature of your neighborhood, you would want to know about that.
The same is likely true if a government entity planned to build a road through your property or spend taxpayers’ money for a project that you find dubious, or a local public service district planning to raise your fees, or learning that you may be entitled to some unclaimed property.
What makes it possible for you to be informed of such matters is that section in this newspaper and others labeled “legal notices.” Those are the notifications that government bodies, estate managers, businesses and others are required by law to have published. The key rationale for that requirement is to have an informed citizenry and to ensure that due process is afforded members of the public in matters that might affect them.
This structure of transparency is nothing new; it’s been around in our land since colonial times. In 1789 the Acts of the First Session of the Congress required all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers.
But in recent years, lawmakers in various states have tried to chip away at the requirement that such notices be published in newspapers, or by an independent third party at all.
The Public Notice Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, last year tracked about 160 separate bills in state legislatures regarding legal notices. About a dozen of them, if passed, would have either eliminated public notice from newspapers altogether, and many others would have eliminated it in limited circumstances. One bill was passed in Kentucky that allowed that state’s school districts to publish annual financial statements and report cards on their websites instead of in newspapers. While no such proposals have yet surfaced in this year’s West Virginia legislative session, last month one legislative leader said he planned to introduce a bill that would begin the process of removing public notice ads from newspapers.
Fortunately, from this newspaper’s point of view, not many of those proposals have survived, but their repeated presence is troubling.
Of course, many reading this will say the intent is self-serving. Yes, newspapers are entitled to charge money for the placement of legal notices. Ending requirements for publishing them in newspapers will hurt newspapers financially. But that’s not the main point. The public will lose out, too, because a large portion of that “due process” built on government transparency will disappear.
Eliminating the independent third party in publishing notices will mean that government entities will be free to use their own devices for informing the public. Navigating many government websites is difficult, and if a government is intent on essentially hiding a public notice on its site, it can easily do so.
Keep in mind, too, that a large portion of West Virginians do not have access to reliable broadband internet, so fishing around on government websites for legal notices could be very difficult, if not impossible, for them. Readers of newspapers have those publications in their homes willingly, and the legal notices contained in them will be there for them to see.
Another factor, especially in West Virginia with a population that skews older than in most states, many senior citizens do not use computers and the internet and therefore would be ill-served by the elimination of legal notices in newspapers.
Advocates often describe legal notices as part of a three-legged stool of government transparency, with the other two being open meeting laws and freedom of information acts. Ending requirements for legal notices to be published in newspapers and on their websites will significantly reduce government transparency. It’s a step that should be resisted not only by newspapers, but the readers they serve.