By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

The two-year session of the 129th Ohio General Assembly ended Thursday with a flurry of activity during a wild, lame-duck period. A lot of bills were pushed through the political funnel.

From the ONA perspective, we won a few rounds and lost a key battle but could win the war as the cliché goes.

Here is the scorecard from the past few days. All these bills are on their way to Gov. John Kasich for his signature in one form or another.

Self-storage public notices: The self-storage industry managed to insert an amendment into a bill, House Bill 247, that was larded with language unrelated to its original form. It essentially allows these owners to bypass the public notice requirement for two newspaper notices by simply affirming that “three independent bidders” showed up for the auction of someone’s private property.

It is the worst public notice language I have ever seen, and we partnered with the Ohio law journals to work hard to fix this language because of that – even though we were told this legislation was “wired,” and there was no way to have an impact.

We had an impact, but we ran out of time.  The Senate passed the bill Thursday. We have an agreement among all parties to fix this language with our compromise suggestion early in 2013. Sen. Frank LaRose and Sen. Michael Skindell in particular deserve credit for their support.

Newspapers that editorialized against this provision were a big help. The editorials were cited and read – and drew a strong reaction from the self-storage industry, which is fine. (The law already allows them to bypass the cost of hiring an attorney and going to court before they auction private property.)

Getting this done will be one of our priorities in 2013.

Fees to print public records: ONA member editorials helped here, too.  The county recorders were hoping for an amendment in HB 247 that would allow you to look at their records on the Internet but pay a fee to print them out.  The amendment was never offered, and legislators had little enthusiasm for the idea once this absurd concept was made public.

Some county recorders do have issues and concerns about how their offices are funded and their resources for technology upgrades, but citizens shouldn’t be penalized in the meantime.

Arson offenders registry: Senate Bill 70 creates a confidential database of arson offenders in Ohio to aid law enforcement. This was amended by Rep. Matt Lundy on the House floor to make the database a public record, which we obviously supported. The law enforcement community opposed this, saying some of the database information comes from confidential sources, and there were not resources to make this a publicly available database.

The public record provision was removed in Conference Committee. We will be working with the Attorney General’s office in 2013 on ways to make these types of databases, at least portions of them, public records when they are created.

Sentencing law: SB 160 is a fascinating bill that should solve the problems of crime victims not being notified by prison and parole officials before offenders may be released and transferred.  (It was dubbed “Roberta’s Law” in recognition of a murder victim’s family that has worked for years to get this passed.)

The bill contains provisions that should make it easier for the news media to get notices of the pending release of some offenders, and there will be a publicly accessible database of discharged prisoner information kept for 10 years after an inmate is released.

Face-to-face contact critical on Valassis deal

I made the rounds to the offices of seven U.S. House members and both Ohio U.S. senators in Washington last week, talking primarily about the U.S. Postal Service, especially the sweetheart deal with Valassis. (For background on our Valassis coverage and a detailed FAQ, click here.)

My visits affirmed the critical important of face-to-face contact with members of Congress. Nothing you can do substitutes for that in terms of impact. Several members simply had not put this issue on their radar, while the ones who were well informed often cited personal contact with the ONA and local publishers.

The threat to newspapers’ weekend insert revenue is very, very real. We can provide any talking points or background you need, and I will be happy to drive to your community for an in-person meeting if you would like me to attend as well.

Our key, fresh talking point on Valassis was this: Theoretical concern has become reality, even in places where Valassis isn’t active. Retailers are using the threat to beat newspapers up on rates. Smaller papers must follow the lead of the larger, metro papers.

We presented evidence that showed appraisers of newspaper properties are citing the Valassis deal as a factor in lowering the values of Ohio newspapers. That got the attention of several lawmakers.

We also talked, as usual, about Saturday mail delivery. I told them that we recognize the USPS needs to do dramatic things to save money.  We wish we could support the elimination of Saturday delivery, but the USPS first must fix the severe reliability problem it has.

We have too many weekly members who can’t count on their papers being delivered on Thursdays and Fridays, despite above-and-beyond efforts to do everything the USPS asks them to do.

Here is a link to the contact information for Ohio members of Congress.  Some of this will change after January as the delegation shifts based on the 2012 election results. You can get new members off to a good start by making contact now.

Again, please consider making the time for face-to-face contact.

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