February 13, 2014 | Vol. 117 -- No. 43

House bill would limit public's ability to be informed about public meetings

Openness is important in maintaining public trust in our governmental organizations.

Openness means access to what public officials do. It can be difficult, especially when it comes to obtaining records created by government.

But openness also means notification, something a bill moving through the state House of Representatives would impede if it became law. The House Education Committee was scheduled to hear testimony today (Feb. 13) on HB 2319, a bill that would make it easier for school districts to publish notices of certain activities.

Currently, school districts must publish notices in a local newspaper of general distribution within the school district of public hearings on activities such as proposed school closures, rentals or leases of district property totaling $10,000 or more in value, the sale of property of $70,000 or more, meetings for fixing and adopting the district budget for the next fiscal year and proposed issuance of non-voted bonds in excess of $250,000. Depending on the activity, the notice must be published either once, once per week for two consecutive weeks or once per week for three consecutive weeks.

HB 2319 would allow school districts to meet this requirement by publishing the notice on a public website maintained by the school district instead of a newspaper of general circulation. According to the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association the bill has been up for consideration before and pulled, but is back “under the loophole that it has a budget implication.”

I’m sure it does, or at least the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Chad Magendez (R-Issaquah), Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) and Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater) and their supporters believe it does. School district’s could save a small amount of money by not having to buy a legal notice in their local newspaper every time one of these or other situations comes up.

I won’t lie to you and pretend there wouldn’t be consequences to us. If HB 2319 passed, it could harm the finances of newspapers in this state.

Newspapers such as the Cheney Free Press are kept operating mostly by display advertising. Legal notices as described above from school districts, cities, counties and estates also provide a good deal of our income.

If revenue from legal notices were lost, we’d probably be able to survive, but in a much smaller and limited capacity. And the public — you — would lose a neutral source of information.

But there’s also the impact HB 2319 would have on an informed public. Informed not just through understanding, but informed as to the activities of those we pay tax dollars to support.

The public notification process in this state is akin to writing on a piece of paper the meeting date and time and taping it to the administration building or city hall door. No one would see it unless they happened to be in the neighborhood and walk by.

Websites are no different. Websites don’t arrive in your mailbox weekly. You don’t open your front door each morning and look down in a box and see a website.

You have to go to the website. You have to walk by.

Websites can also be manipulated continuously by adding or removing information. A public agency could post a meeting notice a day before the meeting took place, and then claim it had been posted for two weeks.

How would you know they were telling the truth?

With a newspaper the notice is at least set in newsprint and ink. Once done, it can’t be altered.

True, one would still have to read through the newspaper to find the notice, but at least there would be concrete evidence the agency had followed the law. The failure not to be informed about the meeting would fall on the citizen.

School districts and other public agencies operate at the discretion of those who foot the bill for them — us. To maintain trust in those agencies, openness shouldn’t be sacrificed, even if it means saving a couple dollars.

Trust can only be maintained by public notification secure from manipulation and with neutrality. HB 2319 would sacrifice that trust on the altar of convenience and economy.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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