Lawmakers defend bill posting notices on city websites

OLYMPIA — State Reps. Brad Klippert and Larry Haler say they are just trying to help local governments cut expenses in tough economic times, but in the process they are drawing fire from the state's newspaper industry.

Klippert, R-Kennewick, said he chose to co-sponsor a bill with Haler, R-Richland, and 15 other legislators that would allow cities and counties to post some public notices on their websites instead of using a newspaper.

The proposal is being opposed by newspaper groups such as the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which say it would be the first step toward the end of all legal notices and a disservice to the public.

They also say public agencies' websites have very little readership when compared with print newspapers and their websites.

The bill would allow cities and counties to post online summaries of newly adopted ordinances, notices of upcoming public hearings and summaries of public meeting agendas.

Bill Will, executive director of Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, compares the proposal to turning off traffic lights to save money on electricity.

"It's just bad public policy," he said.

Legal notices in newspapers are how citizens receive notification from their government, Will said.

In a statewide WNPA readership survey in 2009, 86 percent of those who responded said agencies should be required to publish legal notices in newspapers and 53 percent said they regularly read the notices.

A large part of the population doesn't have internet access or wouldn't be able to find what they were looking for if the notice was only online, Will said.

Klippert admitted changing to website notification would mean some citizens would not receive the notices. However, he said people could call their local government to get the information or visit city hall or the county courthouse.

Cities have asked legislators to provide relief from state mandates so they can efficiently use taxpayer money, Klippert said. House Bill 1478 is a response to that.

Allowing cities and counties to use their websites to provide notice to the public would save local governments the money they pay for those notices, Klippert said.

But Will said that cost is small when compared with a public agency's budget.

The measure could cause about six weekly newspapers in Southwestern and Eastern Washington to fail and would hurt other newspapers, he said.

But Richland City Manager Cindy Johnson said the change would give Richland an option to save money. The city spent $32,194 on legal notices in 2010.

Johnson said the city will evaluate whether website notification would reach enough citizens before making a decision on favoring use of the website for public notices.

Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said he's not sure if the cost savings would be worth the loss of that form of communication.

Most of Pasco's public notices in the Tri-City Herald tend to be about upcoming public meetings and hearings, he said. The city spends $10,000 to $15,000 a year on legal notices.

Benton County Commission Chairman Leo Bowman said Benton County likely would consider using its website for the public notices if the Legislature passes the bill.

The county spent about $2,500 on public notices last year under a contract with the Tri-City Herald, he said.

Franklin County spent about $6,500 on legal notices in the Connell Graphic, which is the county's newspaper of record, according to county documents. But that amount includes notices that are not addressed in the proposed bill, including court and election notices.

Because the bill was just introduced in the last week, Christina Palmer, Kennewick director of project management, said city staff members had not reviewed it and considered an official position.

Kennewick spent about $7,100 on public notices during the 2009-10 biennium, she said.

The change to public notices is only part of the bill, which is described as "Delaying or modifying certain regulatory and statutory requirements affecting cities and counties." It also would postpone required updates to state-mandated plans including comprehensive plans, solid waste plans and shoreline master plans.

The Association of Washington Cities supports the bill as a way to trim some municipal costs. Steve Gorcester, the association's director of state and federal relations, said extending the amount of time before required plan updates would save money.

The House Committee on Local Government is holding a public hearing on the bill at 8 a.m. on Friday. No public hearing has been scheduled yet for the Senate version, SB 5360.

* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com