Kudos to the Capital for publishing my letter-to-the-editor critiquing its editorial and lobbying practices seeking to preserve its various direct government subsidies. The letter concerns government mandates for public notices to be published in the Capital, which I believe constitute the bulk of the Capital’s profit, although less than half of its ad pages.
I submitted the letter on April 2 in response to the Capital’s April 2 editorial on the same subject matter. The letter was submitted to the email addresses of both the Capital’s letters-only email address and editor (in practice, the editor decides which letter will run and when).
I asked the editor that it be published immediately so that my argument would be available to the public before the General Assembly adjourned early on the morning of April 9. As I noted in my April 2 email to the Capital’s editor, it seemed to me that if the letter wasn’t published before April 8, it would be politically irrelevant. On April 8 the letter still hadn’t been published, so I emailed the Capital’s editor asking for an update on the letter’s response. By April 23, I still hadn’t gotten a response, so I emailed the editor once again asking for an update.
The editor agreed to publish it later the same day with the proviso that the tense be changed so that it read as if I submitted the letter after the General Assembly had already defeated the bill. I strenuously resisted, and to the editor’s credit he relented by adding a note (see the end of the letter) that the letter was submitted before the General Assembly adjourned. By then, however, the Senate had already defeated the bill and Delegate Michael Malone had decided he wouldn’t introduce the bill again next session.
The letter is copied below.
Note that several months ago I asked the editor for the amount of revenue the Capital received from government mandated public notices from both governments and private companies. He replied that the Capital considered the information to be confidential. The Anne Arundel County figure below comes from a 2012 fiscal noted published by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services concerning a bill that would open up government mandated public notice revenue to the Capital’s competitors. The forfeiture notice figures comes from public testimony presented by Delegate Malone and the State’s Attorney at House and Senate committee hearings.
Later on April 23, the Capital’s editor told me that he wouldn’t publish the letter until I provided sources for the $500,000 and $http://mgahouse.maryland.gov/mga/play/138a30b6-0e58-4655-8251-d46d56c349b4/?catalog/03e481c7-8a42-4438-a7da-93ff74bdaa4c&playfrom=177900001,800 figures used in the letter. This was odd for two reasons. First, the Capital often publishes factually misleading information in the editorials, op-eds, and letters it publishes without seeming to have such scruples. Second, the editor only months before said he couldn’t provide me with such information because his parent company considered it confidential information. Fortunately, I was able to provide him with the authoritative sources cited above, and he immediately relented.
The editorial denouncing Del. Michael Malone’s bill seeking to modernize public forfeiture notices was shamefully self-serving and misleading (The Capital, April 2). After substantial debate, the bill passed the House unanimously (135-0) for good reason: because the current government mandate to pay The Capital $1,800 for each forfeiture notice is anachronistic and indefensible.
Anne Arundel County government alone pays The Capital more than $500,000/year for government mandated public notices, with private companies presumably forced to pay it many times more. This archaic government subsidy only survives because our politicians are terrified of facing retribution from The Capital (e.g., of being WesAdamized).
The Capital should publicly disclose 1) how much both governments and private industry pay it under government-mandated notice requirements, and 2) how much the Baltimore Sun Media Group pays the MDDC Press Association lobbyist and who that lobbyist is currently privately meeting within the Senate.
It should acknowledge and fairly report the arguments of those who argue this form of notice is archaic and undemocratic. As for the Senate leadership, it should have allowed a public vote on the bill rather than shoving it in a drawer. The time for modernizing Maryland’s archaic and highly undemocratic public notice requirements is long past due.
Editor’s Note: J.H. Snider submitted this letter for publication before the end of the General Assembly session.
The editorial to which this letter refers is copied below. Interestingly, it no longer shows up when searching in the Capital’s search box. Moreover, the URL to which it originally referred now links to the editorial published on the subsequent day. The Capital has deleted articles without any public notice–e.g., when it is accused of libel–but I would not have thought this article would rise to that sort of Orwellian control of the historical record. Perhaps as a result of this note the Capital will make the article accessible again to its readers. After all, if the Capital deletes articles without public notice, it can reinstate them as well.
The Capital’s two top editors appear to be the most diligent readers of this website. And from an author’s perspective, it’s nice to have such influential readers. If they are reading this, I’d suggest they rethink how they deal with articles that post-publication might not be in the best financial interest of their parent company. They’ve upgraded their journalistic standards in many other ways in recent months, why not this one, too?
An analogy to the aforementioned type of manipulation and destruction of the public record in the newspaper of public record for Anne Arundel County (e.g., see those legally mandated public notices in the Capital!) is the Capital’s treatment of article public comments. Three times during the past decade the Capital has wiped out all public comments on its articles without any public notice either before or after the wipe out.
Please note that I highlighted the passage below related to Wes Adams. A professional politician would interpret this type of statement as a warning: “Poke the Capital’s eye like Wes Adams did on an issue vital to the profitability of the Capital, and expect we’ll run you out of office on unrelated, popular issues, like we did with Wes Adams.”
The editorial apparently was successful in its short-term purpose, which was to dissuade the Senate from passing the legislation.
Our Say: Senate should reject proposal to reduce public notice of forfeiture
Public notice is a bedrock of good government. Agencies that fail to guarantee the public knows about their actions fail that basic test.
That’s why after police seize cash from people allegedly involved in illegal drugs, prosecutors are required by law to post a public notice before they move to take that money as ill-gotten gains through a process called forfeiture.
Maryland law requires that notice to appear in print — in newspapers such as this one — three times. House Bill 554, sponsored by Del. Michael Malone, would drop that requirement in favor of a 30-day posting on a local government website.
We urge members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where the bill is currently waiting, to reject this bill. This is sloppy legislation with no evidence that its supporters care about the intent of public notice — open government that is responsible to its constituents.
William Katcef, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County, spoke recently to the Senate Judicial Proceedings on behalf of this bill. It’s an idea that came out of his office under former State’s Attorney Wes Adams, and the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association ran with it even after Adams lost his office in November.
Money is driving this proposal. If the state wants to take money seized in a drug raid, advertising costs eat into that bankroll or in some cases exceed it. Advertising on a county government website for 30 days would be free and, Katcef argues, equally effective.
We have to be direct here. Advertising helps fund our news organization. Loss of revenue from these ads would be important. The reasons for rejecting this are about more than us.
Prosecutors want the public to trust that financial sense is the only factor in this proposal. Money from Maryland forfeiture proceedings goes into a county’s general fund, so it benefits the taxpayer to cut costs. Statewide, the median amount seized is under $300 and the total was less than $2 million in the final three months of 2017, the most recent figures available.
Currently, prosecutors aren’t paying anything. Instead, they’re using a less public route to forfeiture allowed under current law — taking the cash after a year if no family member or business partner comes forward with a legitimate claim to the money.
So, while the prosecutors’ association argues the public shouldn’t lose money, they already have a solution for small amounts of cash — waiting a year.
What they really want is a way to shorten the current process to 30 days, without increasing the risk of being challenged in court.
Prosecutors are right to seek a cost-benefit for taxpayers. But public notice is a reasonable check on government forfeiture proceedings — no matter how valid the reason — and the law requiring it must stay in place.
As noted above, despite his 135-0 victory in the House and the refusal of even a single senator to speak out publicly against his bill, Delegate Malone won’t be introducing a forfeitures notice bill again next year. As he explained in his House testimony, the bill was not opposed by the press lobby when the House voted on it. The press lobby only came out in opposition after the bill moved to the Senate, at which time the Senate did exactly what it usually does when it doesn’t want to take an inconvenient vote on a non-partisan bill that senators of both political parties know is in the public interest but that a powerful special interest group opposes: table the bill.
This is not the first time the Capital has written one-sided news or editorial articles against efforts to modernize Maryland’s government mandated public notice requirements. It did so in 2016 and 2017, as cited below.
Arguably, however, the Capital deserves credit when it brings this issue to public notice, whether it does so in a one-sided way or not. As a point of contrast, after the Great Recession of 2008, there was a serious effort by the Capital’s competitors to get a slice of the government mandated public notice market. The Capital aggressively and successfully mobilized to defeat that General Assembly legislation, including a brilliant WesAdamized effort. But I don’t recall it covering that full-bore attack on the legislation in its newspaper pages. The attack was reserved for more conventional lobbying methods, so the public wasn’t even aware that such an issue existed.
In 2016 and 2017, the Capital did acknowledge the issue in its pages with respect to legislation that would only have affected a small fraction of its government mandated revenue.
In 2016, the Capital ran an editorial about a public notice bill that County Executive Steve Schuh wanted to have introduced into the Maryland General Assembly. I submitted a comment on that article and posted it on my blog. The comment has been deleted from the Capital website.
In 2017, the Capital ran a news article about a public notice bill in the County Council, also pushed by Steve Schuh. I submitted a comment on that article and posted it on my blog. The comment has been deleted from the Capital website.
One of the major reasons I started and maintained my blog is that I learned more than a decade ago that the Capital was in the habit of deleting comments from the public record, so if I wanted to preserve the record, I’d have to do it myself. My last comment on government mandated public notices illustrates the rationale for creating a public record independent of the Capital.