ANNAPOLIS – The fourth estate hopes for a sixth success in the legislature.
Newspaper advocates spoke before the House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 23, to fight against two bills they say threaten the freedom of the press.
HB663 and HB666, both introduced by Delegate Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery County), would remove the requirement for local governments to publish public notices of their actions in print newspapers. Similar measures had been introduced yearly since 2010, garnering unfavorable committee reports in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The bill was withdrawn in 2013.
“What this bill would allow the county or municipality to do is post their legal notices on their website,” Robinson said of HB666. “An affidavit stating when the notice was posted would also be required.”
Currently, the law requires charter counties to place legal notices of certain actions, for example changes to tax rates, in newspapers of general circulation over a specified timeframe. HB666 would allow governments to instead run the notices on their website, with paper records maintained that show the dates the notice was available on the website. Those affidavits would not need to be notarized.
HB663 calls for an amendment to the state constitution that would let the General Assembly decide if a means of publication besides newspapers was acceptable.
“That is very similar to many provisions in our constitution that allow the General Assembly to pass laws to flesh out what’s there in the constitution,” said Kathleen Boucher, assistant chief administrative officer on intergovernmental affairs and PIA liaison at the Montgomery County Council’s office of government relations.
Proponents see the bills as cost-saving measures for the counties, as they would no longer pay the newspapers to run those notices. Robinson said the Montgomery County government spent $1.3 million on public notices in 2013. Also, they pointed to decreased newspaper circulation, coupled with the rise of the Internet as an increasingly-used source of information, as reasons to back the measure.
“This is an issue where it is time to look and see, is the cost to publish these notices in a format that is increasingly differentiated by technology and the way people access and consume news, is this the way we should continue to do business?” Les Knapp, policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, said.
But Ben Phillips, president of the Afro-American Newspapers chain, said not everyone has the means or the desire to access the Internet.
“We are deeply concerned because a large segment of our community, while they might embrace the new technology, does not use it to the fullest extent,” he said. He pointed out that many smartphone owners use those devices for text messaging and calls and not for browsing the Internet.
Lynn Kapiloff, publisher of The Sentinel Newspapers, also spoke on the issue of access and argued that newspaper archives are easier for the public to access than government-held records.
“PIA (Public Information Act) creates another hurdle for those seeking to verify and find information and additional paperwork and recordkeeping by government workers,” Kapiloff said.
Del. William Wivell (R-Washington County), questioned whether a provision would need to be added to the bills specifying that written notice, for example a mailer, would need to be sent out for certain types of notification, to help be sure residents such as senior citizens, who are uncomfortable using the Internet, receive the information.
“I’m a little bit concerned about folks who are affected by a rezoning next to their property and different things that impact people’s property rights, that they might not necessarily see something on the Internet,” he said.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland, Delaware and District of Columbia Press Association (which strongly opposes both bills), added that studies have shown that Internet access is highest in white and Asian households, wealthier households, households with higher education levels, and households in more urban areas, meaning a move to Internet-based notifications could leave many vulnerable populations out of the process.
“Together, print and online reaches a far broader section of the public than government websites alone,” she said.
Brian Karem, executive editor of The Sentinel Newspapers in both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, agreed. He cited polls of Sentinel readers that showed around 10 percent of them do not get public notice information from the Internet.
“That’s equal to the voter turnout in some precincts during recent elections,” he said.
He also argued for the value of newspapers as an independent entity, separate from the government, and thus able to effectively monitor it. He said the system proposed under the bills would make it easier for people seeking to deceive the public to alter the records.
“(A print copy of a newspaper) can’t be hacked, it can’t be changed,” he said. “This is finite. The Internet is ephemeral, and in the court of law finite is king and thus it still has merit in today’s world.
“I think (the bills are) an anathema to the free press. I also think they monopolize the information process and take verification of public activities away from the public and leave it inside the government.”
“Notices about government actions need to be independent,” she said. “Governments cannot monitor their own actions without eroding public credibility and trust.”
Committee member Del. Anne Healey (D-22), a former newspaper editor, seemed to agree with those arguments as well.
“There’s a piece of it that your testimony hasn’t addressed,” she told Del. Robinson. “There’s more than one thing about these legal notifications. It’s not just that they’re out there for people to read. It’s about having a record that can’t be corrupted, that people can go back and look up where you can find the information that’s not doctored.”
Robinson responded, “Things can be corrupted on the Internet, but also if you have hard copies stored somewhere, there are fires, there are floods, there are losses and misfilings. I don’t think we can address that completely.”
Kapiloff argued that newspapers have long been effective at maintaining those records properly, with people in the industry bringing decades of experience to the task.
“We don’t want the government to subsidize us. We want you to pay for a service that we provide, and provide well,” Karem said.
Kapiloff added that more employees might have to be hired to keep the websites updated as a result of the bills.
Expressing a similar sentiment, Snyder said, “Local governments expect cost savings if this legislation is passed. However, government websites are not free.”
Another issue raised by Healey was the fact that people would have to go searching for the information online, whereas published notices in newspapers are easy to find and read.
“The General Assembly has decided a long time ago, it’s a long-standing policy, that those kind of things should be broadcast in such a way that it draws attention to them, not something somebody just wants to look up,” she said. “I guess the idea is a notice that you want people to actually notice.”
Karem agreed, noting that newspapers publish many public notices in all one place.
He said this year’s hearing was much like the hearings for the similar bills in past years.
“I think the legislators got the key issues and understood the key issues, so I am cautiously optimistic,” he said.