State delegates question legitimacy of allowing government total control over public notification
ANNAPOLIS – Members of a House of Delegates committee Tuesday questioned the House sponsor of two bills that would allow localities to post public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers of general circulation.
During a joint public hearing in front of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, state Del. Shane Robinson (D-39) defended House Bills 663 and 666 while fielding questions from state Dels. Anne Healey (D-22) and William Wivell (R-2A)
Lynn Kapiloff, publisher of The Sentinel Newspapers, testified that newspapers play a special role for fact-based reporting.
“There are people who simply do not like the Internet for a variety of reasons,” said Kapiloff.
She added, “The information sometimes provided by bloggers and by pretend news organizations flood us with fiction passing itself as fact. The printed word is the last major road block from complete anarchy in news.”
HB 663 and HB 666 next move on to the Local Government Subcommittee, according to Trish Gagnon, an assistant to committee Chairman Kumar Barve (D-17).
Neither bill was listed on the subcommittee’s agenda for this week.
“Possibly next week, they will be discussed in subcommittee,” said Gagnon. “It is difficult to determine when they will be put on the committee voting list. Subcommittees are open to the public. “
Healey, the former editor of the Catholic Review in Baltimore, the Prince George’s Post-Sentinel and the Prince George’s Post, told proponents of the bills that printed records in newspapers “can’t be corrupted” or “doctored,” unlike files posted online, adding they can be “revised and edited without anybody knowing it.”
Robinson acknowledged as much, saying, “Things can be corrupted on the Internet,” but added fires and floods can destroy hard copies of newspapers.
“So that is going to be a problem as well,” he said.
The Sentinel’s archives of newspapers, dating back to the first issue published in 1855, are stored in Rockville.
Robinson said Montgomery County spent $1.3 million publishing public notices in 2013.
Healey also took issue with the idea of government entities being in charge of publishing their own records and said publishing public notices in newspapers is about actively informing citizens by putting the information in front of them instead of having them find it on a government website.
“Those kind of things are broadcasted in a way that draws attention to them,” she said, later adding, “(It’s) a notice you want people to actually notice.”
Wivell said in jest his senior mother would not know how to turn on a computer, let alone search for records online. He added seniors “may not necessarily see something on the Internet.”
Opponents and proponents of the bill who signed up to offer testimony broke down equally, six to six.
After Robinson spoke, Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At large) also testified in favor of the bills, along with the County’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher and Maryland Association of Counties legal and policy counsel Les Knapp.
“Our job as local governments is to get information to people, and it’s an increasing challenge for people these days,” said Floreen, adding “people search now on the Internet to get that information.”
The next panel included The Sentinel Newspapers publisher Lynn Kapiloff and executive editor Brian Karem, the Afro-American Newspapers President Ben Phillips and Maryland, Delaware and District of Columbia Press Association executive director Rebecca Snyder, all of whom spoke out against the bills, which are also sponsored by state Sen. Nancy King (D-39).
Snyder noted the MDDC’s membership newspapers publish public notices online as well as in print and added that the MDDC also aggregates public notices to host them on the MDDC website.
She stressed that independence, verification, audience and accessibility are the key reasons why newspapers should continue to publish the public notices.
Phillips noted his core audience “loves having the hard copy” and that what is promoted in his newspaper “is a fact.”
“They might be going back to it for the next three weeks,” he said, referring to the Afro-American’s readers.
After the public hearing, Phillips said newspapers are still necessary as an independent third party to provide information.
“It is part of our responsibilities as reporters of the news to provide these public notices, and often a lot of our readers, they’re not going to go ahead and do these in-depth searches they’re talking about,” Phillips said.
Phillips also said there is an “information overload” on the Internet for the older audience.
“They’re used to seeing public notices all the time in a certain section of the paper. And, plus, they can go back and retrieve them (at) any time,” Phillips said.
Executive Director of the Maryland Association of Counties Michael Sanderson said he supports the bills because of the primary interest in “adequate notice” to citizens.
“We have a really wide swath of things that right now, under state law, have to go into a newspaper of general circulation. That law, I think, made sense many decades ago when it was put into place,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson also said the bill would require for the local government to post on the newspaper what type of information would be found online.
“Of course, you also post that (in) your public building as well. So if you come to the county government office, they would inform you that stuff is probably available in the building, but next week’s notice is going to be available online,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson said that the main concern is that information is available for those who want it.
Each committee member received a replica copy of the first edition of the Montgomery County Sentinel, which was published 161 years ago.
“It is finite. It cannot be hacked. It cannot be changed. It exists today as it existed in 1855, warts and all,” said Karem. “The Internet is infinite and ephemeral. It can be hacked and changed, and proving this after the fact is problematic. In the courtroom, it is the finite and measure which has weight. Thus the printed word is still king.”
Karem later added, “This legislation opens the door for all public notices to be published in a wide variety of disparate websites, making it more, not less, difficult for readers to find public notices.”
One of Robinson’s chief claims is the physical copies of The Washington Post and the Montgomery County Sentinel are not enough to inform a county of more than 1 million people.
While legislation similar to his without the constitutional amendment has repeatedly died in committee in past years, Robinson said the 2015 demise of the Maryland Gazette in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties made this year’s legislative effort different.
“Where can I find the records from the Gazette, for instance?” asked Robinson.
He questioned where he would be able to find hard copies of past issues of the defunct local newspaper, making the case that just because something is printed doesn’t mean it’s readily accessible once a newspaper closes.
“There’s no such thing as a finite object in the world, given enough time,” said Robinson, later adding his bills would require local governments to keep printed, “finite records” of all the public hearing notices, available by request.
Kapiloff noted her newspapers offer “proof of publication routinely and in a timely fashion.
“Your proposal would undo that process by mandating a paper file be kept at a government office, only available by a PIA,” said Kapiloff, referring to the Maryland Public Information Act. “This creates another hurdle for those seeking to verify and find the information and additional paperwork and recordkeeping by government workers.”
Barve, the committee chairman, said that while he tries to consider the merits of both sides during a debate, the opponents of the bill offered a strong case.
“I would say that the notion of putting something in the record outside the government is very valid,” Barve said.
State Del. Carl Anderton Jr. (R-38B) said he would probably not support the bill because several of his constituents rely on newspapers as their primary source of information.
“Local newspapers, for a lot of people, (are) still their Internet,” said Anderton.
Some committee members said they were still undecided, such as state Del. Robert Flanagan (R-9B).
Flanagan said he would decide whether to support the bills after discussing them with committee members.
While Robinson acknowledged the rising circulation of The Sentinel, he said the newspaper is not at the point yet of filling the void left after the Maryland Gazette closed in 2015.
The free newspaper reported a circulation of 19,266 in 2014, according to statistics provided by the Baltimore Sun and the Alliance for Audited Media. Robinson noted The Sentinel’s circulation is 10,000 and The Washington Post’s Montgomery County circulation is 100,000.
“Right now, we don’t have the coverage,” said Robinson.
Ending the publication of public notice bills in newspapers also cuts into newspapers’ revenue, which affects the growth of newspapers.
Robinson categorized the printing of public notices as a government subsidy to newspapers and called it a “forced payment of a service.”
He said this situation is different from other government contracts awarded to private companies compensated for performing services “because this is duplicative, arguable.”
“There are tons of ways to know and find out about these things. You can argue that it’s duplicative,” he said.
Karem disagreed, noting newspapers are paid to provide a service, one Kapiloff testified is executed efficiently by The Sentinel’s staff.
“We do not want the government to subsidize us. We charge a modest fee for a service we provide, a service vital to the Republic,” said Karem. “We ask for no grant from the government. We do, however, agree that state government should not be involved in private enterprise, hence the other reason we oppose this legislation.”
Wivell said he thought some types of public notices should continue to be printed because people may not know that the notices exist unless they frequently visit the local government’s website, if the bills were to pass.
“I can see it (the bills) maybe relaxing it or using the Internet about some things, but there are other things that are pretty controversial like re-zonings and things like that where I’m not sure it makes sense to allow those to be posted to a public webpage because people aren’t going to know to look there,” said Wivell.
Wivell said he thought notices should continue to be printed in newspapers for the present, particularly because a portion of his senior constituents rely on the newspapers for their source of public notices.
“I’m picturing the elderly; I do agree with what (Robinson) said where the newspaper will probably go the way of the dinosaur, but we’re not there yet and there’s a large segment of our population, I think, in our area that we have many elderly citizens do not access the Internet and who do still rely on their printed newspapers,” he said.
According to Wivell, “there are some things that maybe aren’t appropriate for electronic media (alone), and those are things that are really important that affect people’s property and, you know, their lives more directly,” specifically citing zoning notices and annexations.
Wivell said he checked the costs of public notices published by the Washington County government after a reporter asked him about the bills a few weeks ago and found out his county spends less on public notices than he thought, at between $6,000 and $7,000 a year.
Kathleen Stubbs and Nadia Palacios contributed to this story.