What is government trying to hide?
Just about every year, some legislators in Charleston attempt to reduce West Virginians’ access to information about government, business activities that affect us and even matters that could affect our personal finances.
State law requires publication in newspapers of legal notices regarding certain important matters. Here are just a few topics on which public notices are required:
— Delinquent property taxes. Before your home can be sold for unpaid taxes, a public notice must be run, giving you one last chance to avoid the sale.
— When air or water pollution may increase, those responsible must publish legal notices.
— When an election is coming up, sample ballots must be published.
— When the state seeks to remove a child from a home, notice is required.
— When your town or city plans to buy or sell something big, it must give notice.
— When a school system seeks higher taxes through an “excess levy,” details must be provided.
There are many other concerns on which public notices must be run in newspapers.
For several years, a few legislators have sought to reduce or even eliminate altogether the requirements for notices in newspapers. They insist they are simply trying to modernize and save taxpayers money by permitting public notices to be posted on a state website instead of in newspapers.
A website with tax information does not equal a public notice in the newspaper showing you the government is selling a family member’s home because they forgot to pay their taxes.
Two bills now before lawmakers, House Bill 2715 and Senate Bill 318, would eliminate or reduce the number of times some legal notices must be published in newspapers.
Beyond any doubt, that would limit information to the public. It will be found online only by those who go looking for it.
By the way, the newspaper industry in our state already posts public notices online — free of charge — in addition to providing them in print editions.
What about saving taxpayers the cost of publishing legal notices? The biggest, the annual delinquent tax list, is paid for by those who owe taxes, not by the general public. Fees charged to those with back taxes actually generate substantial net profits in many counties.
There is one fact that cannot be disputed: Shifting away from public notices in newspapers would reduce exposure to important information.
So it all comes down to this: Why reduce access to important information?
Or, to put it differently: What are they trying to hide?