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Panel rejects bill to move public notices online

PHOENIX – A House panel rejected a bill Thursday that would have allowed governments to post required notices about public meetings, budgets and other matters on their websites instead of purchasing ads in newspapers.

“I simply do not trust government to keep me informed,” said Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson. “That’s so vital, and I could not possibly support this kind of legislation.”

The House Technology and Infrastructure Committee voted 5-2 against HB 2403, authored by Rep. David W. Stevens, the panel’s chairman.

The bill would have offered the option of putting notices on “a designated site” online rather than in print. He amended the bill Thursday to require that local governments to use their websites and maintain archives of public notices.

Stevens also amended the bill to allow filings on the formation of corporations or partnerships in counties with more than 800,000 residents to run on the Arizona Corporation Commission’s website.

Newspaper publishers and the Arizona Newspapers Association opposed the bill vigorously. Some newspapers rely heavily on public notice ads, but publishers argued from the standpoint that newspapers act as watchdogs to guarantee that notices run accurately and according to state law.

Publishers also argued that many Arizonans, especially in rural areas, still lack access to the Internet.

“Small-town newspapers have a powerful reach in their markets,” Phil Vega, publisher of the Sierra Vista Herald, told the committee.

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Calling newspapers monopolies, Stevens questioned whether their opposition had more to do with keeping the advertising revenue that they would lose.

“If you can’t survive on a subscription rate, is it our responsibility to keep you alive?” he said.

At one point, he asked Michael Green, a lobbyist representing the Arizona Capitol Times, whether the newspaper would run public notices for free if government bodies didn’t pay for them.

“Everybody who has been against this bill has been a watchdog for the public … but because of money, you’re not going to be that watchdog?” Stevens said.

Green said that the revenue allows the paper to pay workers to handle those ads.

“I can’t manufacture out of whole cloth the employees and the ability to sustain something that isn’t bringing in revenue of that magnitude,” he said.

The current law in Arizona calls for notices to be published in a newspaper of general circulation in English. The posting requirements vary by type – for example, some must run for four consecutive days in a daily paper or two consecutive weeks in a weekly newspaper.

A 2009 survey by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns indicated that 27 municipalities in Arizona spent over $900,000 on notices in the previous year.

Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, who voted against the measure, said the time hadn’t arrived to make such a change.

“I’m thinking it’s probably more like 10 years down the line when we can put everything out there on the Internet,” he said.

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Rep. Terri Proud, R-Tucson, said she voted against the bill out of concern that it would kill jobs.

“If we want things to go to one site then we need to take baby steps rather than trying to eat the whole cake at one time,” she said.

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Public notice examples

  • Bids for construction
  • General public improvements
  • Community facility improvements
  • Street and highway improvements
  • Increase in water or sewer rates
  • Zoning ordinances
  • Award of contracts
  • Notice of intent to contract
  • Calls for bids on district bonds
  • Election of board directors