House gives preliminary approval to public-notice bill

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AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would allow municipalities to publish public notices in places other than newspapers.

The House voted 91-58 to approve LD 392, legislation that authorized towns to publish legal advertisements, such as meeting notices, in weekly newspapers.

State law currently requires towns to publish legal notices in daily newspapers.

LD 392 allows towns to publish the notices in weekly newspapers that are delivered to a community by third-class mail, such as advertising shoppers. The bill also allows towns to publish legal notices electronically, provided more than 50 percent of residents in a particular town subscribe.

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The Maine Press Association, which represents daily newspapers, including the Sun Journal, opposes the bill. The MPA said the legislation would deliver a significant financial blow to newspapers and government transparency.

The sponsor of LD 392, Rep. Teresea Hayes, D-Buckfield, disagreed. Hayes said her bill would give communities more options to distribute the notices and potentially reach more households.

Hayes’ bill is backed by the Maine Municipal Association, which said the legislation would save towns money.

Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, was one of seven committee members who supported Hayes’ proposal in a 7-6 vote. However, Celli said Tuesday that he regretted his decision.

Celli worried that the bill would erode government transparency by putting “blinds on municipal government.”

Hayes said the goal was to broaden the reach of legal notices by making use of the Web and weeklies.

The majority supporting the bill was divided among Republicans and Democrats.

Tony Ronzio, president of the MPA and the editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal and the Waterville Sentinel, said the vote was a setback for an industry trying to regain its footing after getting hit by the recession and dynamics affecting circulation and advertising.

He said the argument that the bill would save towns money ignored the fact that newspapers have a history of negotiating rates with municipalities “in the interest of preserving transparency and ensuring the public’s right to know.”

Ronzio said LD 392 “dishonors the relationship newspapers and the government have had for decades to provide easily accessible public information, and would disenfranchise Mainers who turn to their local newspapers to learn what’s happening in their community.”

Hayes submitted three bills this session dealing with public notices in newspapers. One of them has been rejected by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. Another bill would eliminate the requirement that the Secretary of State publish rule changes; it received the unanimous support of the committee.

Hayes has submitted similar bills in the past. In 2008, the Legislature passed one proposal. It was one of a few bills vetoed by Gov. John Baldacci.

LD 392 will face a second reading in the House on Wednesday before moving to the Senate.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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