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Website notification

We’ve suspected for a decade or so that the rise of the web was likely to change, eventually, the requirements by governments for providing proper notification to the public of its actions. In sum: Is the public adequately notified of an important action if the agency puts notice of it on its web site, as opposed to – for example – notifying or taking out ads in newspapers?

Washington courtsMedia executives should take notice of Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority v. Kenneth & Barbara Miller (Docket 76284-8), just filed. The subject of the case concerns property condemnation for public use, in this case a tract at Tacoma owned by the Millers (as owners of a construction company) intended for use as a park-and-ride station. (Sound Transit is trying to run its line further south, toward Lakewood.) The case has several prongs; the one at hand here concerns notice to the public. The court summarizes:

Sound Transit held a public hearing to determine which proposed site to use for the rail station. By law, potential condemnees are not entitled to actual individualized notice. Instead, Washington law requires that agencies develop procedures to give reasonable notice of these meetings to the public which may include informing the local media. Sound Transit has elected to implement this statutory discretion by posting meeting times and agendas on its website. It does not directly notify the media.

The primary issue for review is whether Sound Transit’s method of notifying the public of its meetings is adequate. Alternately, Miller challenges the substantive decision that public necessity for the condemnation exists. We hold that Sound Transit complied with statutory requirements in notifying the public of its meetings and that Sound Transit’s determination of necessity is not the product of actual or constructive fraud.

The theory behind newspaper ad (or news) notification of government actions is that the public has one central place to go if it wants to keep up on substantive government actions. The court is taking a different view here, saying at base that members of the public has to monitor all the governmental web sites if it expects to stay informed about government actions that may affect them.

The court notes that case law is thin-to-nonexistent on the use of web posts as legally sufficient notification, and has been rejected as a notification tool for class action lawsuits. In this case, however, it said “Just as it is impossible to assure that anyone will look at a particular web site, it is equally impossible to assure that anyone will purchase, much less read, a newspaper. In addition, there is no way to assure that a newspaper will even publish a notice furnished by an agency because agencies are not required to buy advertising space. More important, however, is the fact that RCW 35.22.288 does not require an agency to use one of the listed methods, much less prohibit the use of the internet.”

The decision doesn’t, of course, directly affect the legal ads already required to appear in newspapers, and it isn’t license for government agencies to clam up about their actions.

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