For the past century, governments have been required to tell the public when important actions are going to be taken – such as when budgets are going to be approved, taxes raised and land-use …
For the past century, governments have been required to tell the public when important actions are going to be taken – such as when budgets are going to be approved, taxes raised and land-use designations changed. And for all those years, the public has turned to legally approved newspapers to collate and distribute that information.
These announcements are called “legal notices.”
The process is explicitly detailed in state law, and without question most community members expect to find legal notices in their local newspaper. Beyond publication, newspapers play the additional role of documenting that governments have met their obligations to inform the public in a timely way. After ads are published, affidavits of publication are notarized, approved and filed.
Now that practice is in jeopardy.
We don’t live in a paper-only world anymore. We live in a quickly changing e-world. And since it’s sometimes cheaper and easier to put notices online – and not in print in newspapers – there’s a recurrent effort in state legislatures across the county to move some legals to an e-world only.
This year, in Washington, some legislators are using impounded animals to try to open the door to that e-world only. House Bill 1315, which is under consideration, allows governments to do what the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association calls “an end around on weekly newspapers” in counties where there isn’t a daily paper.
This bill details how local law enforcement should notify the public when an animal has been impounded.
“If no daily newspaper exists in the county where an animal was found, the notice of impounding must be published by electronic means in a manner most likely to reach the most potential interested parties,” the bill states.
So, where would you look online to find your animal? The list of possible websites is daunting. It could be the sheriff’s office’s. It could be the Humane Society’s. Or it could be a county or city website. Is social media good enough?
And here’s the thing: At what point does the door opening to this online-only legal notices stop? What if it doesn’t stop and continues on to online-only notices for everything from budgets to land-use changes to foreclosure? You can be sure that once we start this downward slide, soon notices might end up anywhere.
For very good reasons, every county and city in the state has a legally adjudicated newspaper to which a contract has been awarded to publish legal notices; in Jefferson County right now, that’s The Leader. These newspaper legal notices provide a permanent record of government actions that cannot be altered.
If the state is truly interested in getting the widest distribution possible for its legal notices, it should stick to printed newspapers, be they daily or weekly. Newspapers are where people expect to find legal notices, and when those notices are uploaded to newspaper websites, we have the best of all worlds – ease of communication, ease of access for all the public and a process that documents the whole transaction.
When it’s printed in black and white, in ink on paper, it’s real. And when a third party can attest that governments have met their obligations to inform the public, we can all have greater confidence that our institutions are doing their best to keep us informed.