By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
My predecessor, Frank Deaner, warned me about “the gremlins.” They are the lobbyists who whisper in legislators’ ears to slip provisions into legislation that go in the wrong direction regarding public notices, open records or public meetings, particularly during the closing weeks of a two-year, legislative session.
The gremlins were active as Ohio’s 129th General Assembly ended its work, but I believe we fared fairly well. As noted in my last Bulletin column, the biggest issue was the terrible public-notice language in House Bill 247, which allows the owners of self-storage facilities to basically end-run newspaper notice requirements before auctioning private property. We believe we have compromise language acceptable to all sides. We hope to get this fixed early in 2013.
We also were able to block the introduction of an amendment the county recorders were seeking in that same bill that would make citizens pay to print out public records from their own computers. The recorders are hungry to raise money they can control for technology upgrades. You may see this and other troubling public records initiatives surface in 2013.
In my monthly letter to the Board of Trustees, I looked back on the past two years and highlighted some of the most significant legislation to our industry that became law. Here is what I listed:
- Public notices: Major changes in public notice requirements, including the definition of qualifying newspapers, were made part of the budget passed in 2011. What resulted certainly isn’t ideal, but compromise language allowed us to defeat an initial proposal that would have been devastating to citizens’ access to this information and the newspaper industry. Our efforts preserved the key principle of at least one full print notice. (To access our FAQ on the new law, click here.)
- JobsOhio: The Kasich Administration cherry-picked the public records and meetings laws in creation of this quasi-governmental, non-profit agency. We were able to improve their language in two different bills. It could have been a lot worse. Attorney General Mike DeWine deserves credit for his engagement.
- Utility notices: The original version of HB 95 removed all public notice requirements for public hearings and rate increases. “Whoops, we didn’t mean it,” said the utility industry lobbyists when we called them out. We successfully amended the bill to have requirements very similar to the ones in place for local government notices.
- Fraud system: State Auditor Dave Yost agreed to our suggestion that they keep a public record database of fraud and abuse complaints filed with his office (HB 66).
- Public meetings: We agreed to innovative language that should be good precedent for case-by-case efforts to allow some public meetings to include members participating by audio or video-conferencing (SB 207). We expect this measure to formally become law early in 2013.
- Foreclosure sales: Sen. Bill Coley’s bill (SB 234) would have allowed sheriff’s sales to be advertised only on government websites. The bill never came to a vote in committee.
- Casino regulations: Our efforts resulted in at least some of the applicant information for casinos becoming public record.
- Juvenile records: We fended off efforts to close access to juvenile court records in a good-government bill to help offenders get a second chance. (HB 524)
- Public notices for water, sewer districts: Give a shout-out to State Sen. Larry Obhof, who made sure there were newspaper notice provisions for regional water and sewer districts to advertise their meetings (HB 509).
As always, you can find our Legislative Watch List in the members-only area of our website. It has grown to seven pages of small type. I will be starting a new one soon for the 130th General Assembly.
Speaking of that, we have begun tabulating results of the sales-tax exemption survey that went to all ONA publishers and general managers. I am working with lobbyists for the Gannett Co. and The Columbus Dispatch to prepare our talking points in the event that the administration proposes elimination of the exemption on newspaper sales.
A year-end thought or two
I urge you to read this blog post by industry expert Alan Mutter. Digital sales growth at newspapers is not keeping up. That’s scary.
The following paragraph from Alan’s posting mirrors what we learned at AdOhio as we talked to ad agencies and political candidates during the 2012 election cycle:
The final reason newspapers are trailing the over-all digital market is that most of them have what charitably could be called rudimentary mobile and video ad offerings. Because publishers have not invested in harvesting information from their users or modernizing the technology on their web and mobile sites, the only thing they have to sell are static and untargeted ad formats.
Still, I am more upbeat now than I have been in several years. It is obvious that there are many positive things happening. Newspapers can see the outlines of successful models for the future, especially on the news side. The advertising side is where dramatic innovation must continue as well.
At AdOhio, we also are focused on doing a better job proving to advertisers that local newspapers and their websites are the number-one place to find customers in most communities. Our new relationship with the highly successful Florida Press Association will help us do this, in part because we have access to deep market and demographic information.
All of us at the ONA and AdOhio wish you, your colleagues and your families a terrific, prosperous 2013. We pledge to do our best to be an essential resource for you for many years to come.