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Panel delays vote on notices bill as legislators await impact statement

News-Times GM speaks against bill by Will Langhorne | February 24, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
Robyn Yarbro, general manager of the El Dorado News-Times, speaks against HB1399, which would require local jurisdictions to post certain notices online rather than printing them in local newspapers, during a meeting of the House City Council and Local Affairs Committee at the State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (Stephen Swofford/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

An Arkansas House panel on Wednesday delayed a vote on a bill that would allow counties and municipalities to post certain notices on a statewide "third-party website" rather than in newspapers.

The Committee on City, County and Local Affairs postponed its consideration of House Bill 1399 by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, to allow state officials to assemble a fiscal impact statement on the measure. The panel also endorsed an amendment to the legislation in a voice vote with audible dissent.

Under the amended version of the bill, county and city officials could decide to publish notices related to delinquent taxes, elections, ordinances, delinquent properties and financial statements on a nongovernment "third-party website" subject to audit by the state. The bill would not affect other types of official notices including legal notices and bids, Cavenaugh said.

The amendment also would phase in which notices may be posted on the "third-party website" over five years.

The original version of the bill would have permitted local jurisdictions to post notices to government sites rather than a "third-party website" and had an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024.

Along with discussing the amended bill, lawmakers heard from newspaper supporters who objected to how the measure could reduce government transparency and impact local news outlets. Local elected officials spoke in favor of the measure, saying it would save taxpayer dollars without compromising transparency.

The legislation mirrors similar bills and laws passed in other parts of the nation. Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have filed bills that would shift public notices from newspapers to government websites. Last year, Florida passed a law that permits government agencies to post legal notices on government websites rather than newspapers under certain conditions, according to Northwestern University's Local News Initiative.

Cavenaugh said her bill would allow local officials to modernize the way they publish public notices.

"What worked in the 19th and 20th centuries doesn't work any more," she said. "We're in a transition period of how people receive their information and news. More and more people receive it digitally than through print. It happens more every day."

Cavenaugh said her bill was intended to allow for local control and would not bar officials from publishing notices in newspapers.

The "third-party website" under the amendment bill must be selected by the Arkansas Legislative Council. The site may not be operated by a government entity and would be subject to audit by the Arkansas Legislative Audit.

Cavenaugh said she understood concerns raised by newspapers and felt that after discussions, her amended bill was "the fairest to both parties." By allowing local officials to post notices to a single statewide website, supporters said the bill would make it easier for Arkansans to access and search for notices. Critics noted that many newspapers and the Arkansas Press Association already post notices for free on their websites.

Mark Lane, president of WEHCO Media's newspaper division, raised concerns that the bill could lead to the "third-party website" charging local governments higher rates than newspapers currently do. He asked if lawmakers could be sure "the third-party website" would deliver on its promises.

"What are the unintended consequences, the liabilities, the errors, the omissions, the possible lawsuits?" he said.

WEHCO owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and El Dorado News-Times, among other publications.

Robyn Yarbro, general manager of the El Dorado News-Times, said the bill would hurt local newspapers and the communities they serve. While she had yet to fully study the amendment provided that morning to the committee, she said posting a notice "on a website somewhere" as required by the bill is not enough to ensure government transparency.

Yarbro noted that the newspapers she manages -- the News-Times, Camden News and the Banner-News of Magnolia -- post all notices for free online. In 2022, Yarbro said local jurisdictions that advertised with her paper spent less than 1% of their total expenditures on public notices. Only .14% of the total expenditures in 2022 in Union County went toward advertising, including for public notices.

Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said his city pays around $60,000 a year for notices. While the figure might not represent a significant portion of the city's budget, "that's still a lot of money that could be used."

"The newspapers are not irrelevant; I read mine every day ... but I don't believe that publishing these notices in newspapers is always the best option," he said. "It shouldn't be our only option."

Joe May, publisher and editor of the Southern Standard in Clark County, said official notices are a "primary slice" of his paper's income and that he was unsure he could stay in business without them.

Sherri Gard, city clerk for Fort Smith, said her office spends $40,000 a year for the publication of notices.

"It may not be a lot to some, but it is a lot to our city," she said.

Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, questioned whether the amended bill would create the same "fox-in-the-hen-house" problem as the original version of the bill by still allowing local jurisdictions to self-publish notices.

Cavenaugh said under current legal requirements, newspapers are provided the notices by local officials and do not have to conduct independent reporting to receive the notices.

"The cities and counties give it to (the newspapers)," she said. "It would be the same way they would do it with the website."

Rep. Mindy McAlindon, R-Centerton, asked if the lack of broadband access in certain parts of the state could prevent some Arkansans from seeing notices posted to the website. By phasing in the posting of notices to the website over five years, Cavenaugh said the bill would ease the online transition. She said cellphone service is available in many areas of the state that do not have broadband access.

Rep. Wade Andrews, R-Camden, said certain areas of his district have neither broadband nor cellphone service. He asked if the bill would discriminate against people who "refuse to use the internet, refuse to get a cellphone and still like a piece of paper in their hand to read stuff." Cavenaugh reiterated that her bill would not prevent local jurisdictions from printing notices in local papers or posting notices at city halls or courthouses.

The bill would require the third party operating the website to "charge a commercially reasonable rate" for the publication of the notices. Cavenaugh said the rate would be determined by the market.

Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, requested a fiscal impact statement for the bill, saying it was unclear how the measure would impact state finances. Cavenaugh said the third party, not the state, would be responsible for the cost of running the website.

The amended bill would allow cities and counties to begin posting notices regarding financial statements and budgets on the approved website Jan. 1, 2024. The following year, local jurisdictions could begin posting notices related to ordinances.

In January 2026, the bill would allow cities and counties to post delinquent tax notices online. Starting in 2027, the legislation would permit delinquent real estate and certification notices to be published on the site.

Election-related notices would be the final notices phased in by the bill beginning in 2028.

Before transitioning to posting notices on the website, local jurisdictions would have to post notice of the change in newspapers.

Print Headline: Panel delays vote on notices bill as legislators await impact statement

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