This week, the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee voted to move forward on House Bill 4025, which would in two years’ time reduce the publication of legal ads for public notice in communities and counties across West Virginia in favor of placing this vital information on a government-owned website controlled by the state Auditor’s office.
Currently, West Virginia State Code requires the government, companies, corporations and others to alert local residents of actions that would impact residents and their communities.
There are currently 346 such instances in State Code. Legal ads are required for issues from changes in air quality permits, zoning changes, landfill permits and public comment periods on environmental issues to advertisements for bids on local work, government financial statements, delinquent taxes, property sales and election ballots. State Code says residents are entitled to this public notice by a legal ad in their local newspaper, and, depending on the issue, the notice is required to be published once, twice or three times to increase awareness.
HB 4025, which is sponsored by Delegates Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh County, and Tony Paynter, R- Wyoming County, would greatly reduce this public notice at no proven benefit to the people of West Virginia.
Indeed, state officials pushing this legislation are dangerously wrong in thinking a document placed on a government website would be seen by or serve as public notice for West Virginians. This is a state with an aging population and one with limited access to high-speed internet and there remains no information on readership of a statewide website as compared to West Virginia newspaper websites, which attract millions of views each year.
We believe newspapers remain the most relevant source or news and information for communities throughout West Virginia.
Do some politicians actually want to make the process of finding public notices a little more difficult?
There is no evidence that HB 4025 would benefit local residents in their own
In fact, the benefit would go to attorneys, their private clients and to state
agencies. While the bill’s sponsors’ cite the cost reduction to post legal notices online on a government site, they fail to point out that that 66 percent cost reduction would be for attorneys, companies and organizations that are now required by state law or a court to provide the public proper notice through publication of legal advertisements in a local newspaper. That’s because most legal advertisements require a publication fee from the individuals involved or listed, meaning the cost of the legal ad is reimbursed by private parties, not funded with tax dollars. For instance, the annual Delinquent Tax List requires each person or company to pay a fee for the reminder to be published in the local newspaper.
So one reduction West Virginia residents would see would be in the availability of important information affecting their lives and their property.
Another reduction would be in the amount of revenue that would remain in residents’ own communities. Counties in West Virginia actually gain tens of thousands of dollars in revenue to help fund county services from those publication fees.
HB 4025 ignores the fact that the West Virginia newspaper industry has invested millions of dollars in creating and maintaining websites for their newspapers and already offers a free online legal advertisement website — wvlegals.com — for local residents.
This bill is also a dream come true for political officeholders. Not only would it
reduce the amount of information on public notices to average citizens, it would also reduce the number of times an election ballot would be published in the local community, giving incumbents an advantage over lesser-known political challengers.
There are currently 21 bills before the Legislature addressing policies for
environmental regulations, 19 bills addressing consumer protection, 13 bills that would repeal existing code statutes and 14 bills on energy generation. In 2019, the state sold 187,208 individual tracts of land for unpaid taxes.
With many regions of the state struggling economically and the Legislature
suggesting major changes to the tax code and economic development efforts, there is no benefit to West Virginians in reducing public notice. West Virginia lawmakers and residents should all oppose HB 4025