By January 29, 2020 Read More →

Editorial: Your right to know? Maybe not for much longer in W.Va. …

From the Monroe Watchman, Monroe County, W.Va.:

For  as  long  as  this writer can remember, legal advertising has appeared in The Monroe Watchman under the heading, “Public Notices: Your Right to Know.” 

Throughout that time, publication of these items has been required by state government, to inform the public of certain government actions and legal proceedings.   Such items include county and school budgets, delinquent tax sales, constitutional amendments, trustee’s sales, permit applications, bid notices, custody proceedings, name changes, estate settlements, and etc.

Newspapers do charge for these postings, but the rate is set by the state.  Currently the Watchman is permitted to charge less than one-third as much per word for a legal advertisement as we charge (and consider a fair price) for a classified ad.

For several years, there have been rumblings in the legislature about removing the requirement for publication of legal notices in newspapers, and this year the proposal seems to have gained more traction.  This past Monday morning, a bill was introduced in the House Judiciary committee to limit the publication requirement of legal ads to one week (currently most legals run for two consecutive weeks).  As the bill progresses, it may well be amended to remove the requirement for newspaper publication altogether, and that is clearly the goal for some legislators.

The superficial rationale given for the effort is that it would reduce government expenses, while still allowing citizens to access the notices by going to a government-run website. The legislative auditor’s office in fact called legal ad publication an “unnecessary subsidy to the state’s newspapers,” and that statement ticks me off more than a little. Is it a subsidy to the power company or gas company when the electric and heat bills at the Capitol are paid?  Is it a subsidy to auto makers when WVDOT purchases a new truck? Through the publication of legal ads, newspapers are providing a service to government, and have costs associated with that service just like anyone else.

 Of course, there’s often more to a story than meets the eye. Certain social media postings of late seem to indicate that striking back at newspapers that have provided less than favorable coverage on various government actions or positions may also be a part of the agenda …, at least for some elected officials and political organizations.

One problem with the proposal is that in many rural parts of West Virginia, including Monroe, good internet access is not universally available; nor is internet use routine for every resident, even when it is available. In addition, subscribers of a publication that’s routinely read for other reasons can easily scan through legal notices to see if anything strikes their interest.  But far fewer people may go to the trouble of searching out a government website on a daily or weekly basis, just to see what may be posted there.

Either way, the end result is a public that is less informed about government or legal actions taking place in their community.  Just     within    the    last   few months, a local couple learned, from a legal ad in The Watchman, that real estate they had recently purchased was about to be sold out from underneath them because the previous owner had failed to pay off a bank loan.  They acquired an attorney and are taking actions to correct the problem.  Would they have found out about the scheduled trustee’s sale in time, had the notice been tucked away in some government website?   Most likely not.

This nation’s founding fathers valued protections for a free press for the same reasons that support later arose for public education. For democracy to work, everyday citizens must be educated and informed, so that they may choose wisely when casting their votes.  In 1822, James Madison wrote, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.  And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The management of The Watchman believes that legal notices are an important part of the service we provide. And in this particular situation, The Watchman may need the help of its readers.  If you believe legal notices should remain on the pages of your local newspaper, please contact local delegates and senators and ask them to reject changes to legal publication requirements. Some legislators already oppose these changes, some support them, and for others, their positions are not yet known.

Contact information for delegates and senators serving Monroe County is provided below.  Watchman readers in other parts of West Virginia are encouraged to get in touch with their representatives as well.  This is a statewide effort, not a local one.

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Senator Stephen Baldwin, 304-357-7959 or stephen.baldwin@wvsenate.gov. Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @BaldwinForWV.

Senator Kenny Mann, State Capital office 417M, Office 304-357-7849.

Delegate Roy Cooper, (304) 646 1209 or (304) 340 3119.  Email roy.cooper@wvhouse.gov

Delegate  Jeff  Pack,   304 -340-3269   or   by  email   at Jeffrey.pack@wvhouse.gov

Delegate Cindy Lavender-Bowe, email Cindy.LavenderBowe@wvhouse.gov

Delegate Jeff Campbell, Room 6-R, Building 1, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, WV 25305 Phone – 304/340-3131, or email jeff.campbell@wvhouse.gov

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