Public Notice: Proposal limits access to important information

Perhaps you have heard of the “death by a thousand cuts” torture. How about secrecy in government by a thousand acts of the West Virginia Legislature?

Earlier this month we warned of a bill in the House of Delegates that was intended to alter requirements for newspaper publication of public notices. House Bill 4205 would reduce the required number of times some public notices must be published in newspapers.

Supporters of the proposal — which, rest assured, is just a starting point for more sweeping cuts in public notice requirements — insist they are just trying to help West Virginians benefit from technology. HB 4205 would permit some public notices to be posted online at a government website, instead of in newspapers.

But the West Virginia Press Association already maintains an online repository of newspaper public notices.

HB 4205 would reduce public exposure to important information.

Public notice laws pertain to many situations of importance — sometimes financially and personally — to West Virginians. They include sample ballots for elections, lists of delinquent property taxes, notices of plans to increase air and water pollution and on and on.

They also include a requirement that when a county board of education is discussing the calendar for schools — when they start and end, when students are off for holidays, etc. — at least two public meetings must be held so the plans can be discussed. Those meetings must be announced via public notices in newspapers.

Two bills now in the Legislature, House Bill 4745 and Senate Bill 661, include school calendar requirements that would have to be followed in every county. One of them is that classes for the new school year can begin no earlier than Sept. 1.

Another change is that instead of publishing newspaper notices about public meetings on the school calendar, boards of education could place them “prominently on the county board of education’s website.”

Talk about a contradiction in terms: “prominently?” Public notices placed in newspapers read by thousands of people are prominent. Postings on websites visited rarely and by very few people are not.

If the purpose of advertising public meetings is to get more people to attend, publicity in newspapers works. Postings on rarely visited websites … well, you be the judge.

Legislators interested in limiting public access to important information can do so by different methods. They can use sweeping measures such as HB 4205 — or write the change into hundreds of different bills on varying topics. That is the approach of HB 4745 and SB 661.

Neither method should be acceptable. So, again we ask: What are the politicians trying to hide?