In Measure Labeled ‘Reform’ By Christie, Some See ‘Revenge’

TRENTON (AP) -

Newspapers in New Jersey and political opponents say Gov. Chris Christie is targeting the media organizations he has long fought with by pushing a measure to allow state and local governments to post public notices on their own websites, rather than in the print publications.

State and local government agencies across the country are required to pay to publish the legal notices for public meetings, contract bids and other matters. The lobbying groups representing them in New Jersey say the measure would help save money, and that the option to post notices on their own websites recognizes changes in technology.

Lawmakers across the country have called to end the print requirement as newspapers continue to lose readership. The New Jersey Press Association, which is lobbying against the legislation, says New Jersey would be the first state to make the change.

The bill was advanced by a state Senate and Assembly committees on Thursday and it could get final approval as early as Monday.

The lobbying groups for the state’s 21 counties and more than 500 municipalities both said Christie’s administration came to them this week to let them know the measure was being put forward.

Meanwhile, one Christie opponent in the Legislature called it a “politically motivated crackdown on the press in New Jersey.” Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is running in the Democratic primary to replace Christie next year, also called it a “revenge bill.”

“This legal notices reform bill, which will save taxpayers and citizens going through foreclosure $80 million annually, was first proposed in 2010, not 2016,” Christie spokesman Brian Murray said in a statement. “It had nothing to do with the press then and nothing to do with them now.”

Murray said the $80 million figure was the amount paid by governments, businesses and residents, including what it forecast as $60 million for pending foreclosure notices.

Richard Vezza, publisher of the Newark Star-Ledger, testified Thursday that the source of the governor’s figures was murky and unreliable.

“For all we know, it could be someone with a dartboard coming up with these numbers,” he told lawmakers.

The New Jersey Association of Counties estimates the state’s 21 counties would save between $1 million and $1.25 million a year, and the League of Municipalities said 147 towns that responded to a survey paid $1.05 million in legal ads in 2015. That’s about a quarter of the towns in the state.

The press association on Wednesday sent a letter to lawmakers that included a proposed compromise to cut the rate paid by governments by half while raising the rate on private companies.

While noting the financial hit they would take from the change, editorial boards from the state’s major newspapers have slammed what the measure could mean for transparency.

The bill would “weaken the press” and “defang the watchdogs who expose [public officials’] bad behavior,” the Star-Ledger’s editorial board wrote, pointing to potential job losses from the loss of revenue from the ads. An editorial in The Record said public notices ensure government transparency and it’s “foolhardy to believe that making government less accountable is good for anyone aside from government officials.”

But John Donnadio, head of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said the measure would streamline the process of posting legal notices and save some money.

“We understand the impact on the media industry, [but] counties, municipalities and school districts are all struggling to make ends meet, every little bit helps,” Donnadio said.