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Our Views: Move to change legal organ a way to keep public in dark

POSTED: December 15, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Hall County Commission Chairman Richard Mecum on Thursday asked county legislators to consider changing state law to allow local websites to be county legal organs. Mecum pitched the idea as a way for the county to save money, though he didn’t explain how it was he expected money to be saved.

He also didn’t address the purpose of legal organs and the role they serve in a community, which is unfortunate because too many elected officials seem intentionally oblivious to the significant role that public notice advertising plays in keeping the public informed.

The Times is the legal organ for Hall County. That means it is the vehicle through which a host of public notices required by law are made available for public review. The legal notices that appear in The Times are required to be published for a reason — they address issues in which there is a public interest and a need to know. And yes, such notices generate revenue for The Times, as well as the expense of printing and distribution.

Mecum’s request of lawmakers is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact the county commissioners have nothing to do with selecting the legal organ in any county in Georgia. That responsibility rests with three constitutional officers — the sheriff, the clerk of the court and the probate judge.

Current state law requires the legal organ be a paid circulation newspaper which has been published at least weekly for a period of at least two years. Requiring the legal organ to be an established business with a history makes sense, in that the obligation of keeping the public informed via public notices is not one that should be trusted to fly-by-night operations that may close down at any time. Considering how rapidly websites can be created, and disappear, allowing such notices to be entrusted to something other than an established entity would be risky at best.

The law also sets maximum rates for what newspapers can charge for publishing of public notice advertising. Those rates vary based on the type of ad being published, but the amount is set by the General Assembly and applies statewide. In fact, a newspaper like The Times, with a daily circulation of 20,000, gets paid the same amount of money for an ad as does a small weekly legal that may only have the expense of printing 1,500.

All of which makes us wonder exactly what it is the chairman is hoping to accomplish by opening the door for local websites to serve in this important function. He makes reference to saving money, but since the law for the state would have to be rewritten to make such a change, there’s no guarantee of any money being saved by anyone.

On the subject of money, the chairman needs to understand that most money paid for public notice advertising is paid by private companies, not from public funds. For example, the vast majority of such advertising involves foreclosure notices, which are paid for by the law firms and mortgage institutions involved in the foreclosure, not by government entities.

There are some categories of public notices for which tax dollars do pay, but most of those come from departments and agencies other than the county commission. The tax commissioner’s office publishes tax sales periodically, then recovers the expense for those notices through the property transaction. Sheriff’s sales, school system budgets, judicial activities such as settling of estates, mandated state and federal notices and a host of other items are required by law to be published in the legal organ, but none of those notices are placed by the county commission office. In fact, relative to the whole, very few published legal notices come directly from the office of the county commission.

So if the commission office has nothing to do with the selection of the legal organ and minimal involvement in the placement of public notices, and there’s no basis for an assumption that moving public notices to some hypothetical local website would save money, what’s behind the chairman’s request?

There are a couple of plausible explanations.

Over the past several years, various government entities have lobbied for public notice advertising to be forced online rather than in print. At the heart of such suggestions is an ultimate goal of having them hosted online on sites maintained by the governments themselves. After all, who wouldn’t trust the government to post public notices on its own website? Should work as good as offering insurance coverage, right?

A more calculated reason for moving public notice advertising to an area where they would be less visible is to simply keep the public in the dark. When local residents see in a public notice ad that the county is considering a tax increase; they respond. If they never see such a notice, they won’t. How do you keep the public ignorant? Move the notices where they won’t be seen.

And lastly, taking public notices, and the associated revenues, away from newspapers is a great way for local elected officials to strike back when they don’t like the way they’re covered in the news pages. As they have previously demonstrated, nothing would make some of our current commissioners happier than finding a way to attack The Times.

Commissioner Craig Lutz has been trying to strip The Times of its legal organ designation for years. The latest round of interest in doing so came about after the newspaper made the commission look bad because of its penchant for taking action in meetings on items not listed on prepared agendas, an action allowed by the chairman.

But this isn’t about The Times. It’s about the right of the general public to have broad, unfettered access to information to which it has a right by law. Information about possible tax increases, potential environmental hazards, unpaid tax debts, repeat DUI offenders, upcoming elections, possible rezonings and dozens of other issues in which the public has an interest should be made available in the broadest manner possible.

With his comments to lawmakers, Mecum implies that such notices are not now available online and as such are not easily accessible. That simply isn’t true. In addition to the printed public notice section, The Times puts all public notices online at no additional charge to anyone. If Mecum is so cutting edge in his preference for online technology, then surely he has to know that The Times posts all the legals online, right?

Beyond that, the Georgia Press Association hosts a searchable website with public notice advertising from legal organs from every county in Georgia, again at no additional charge to anyone. That website was done by the newspaper association at its own cost, without any request for an increase in rates to cover the cost of doing so. With newspapers as legal organs, the public has more access both locally and statewide to public notices mandated by law than they would ever have on any local website alone.

But limited exposure to such notices is exactly what some local government officials want. We hope the members of the county’s legislative delegation can see through the chairman’s subterfuge and will give his request the credence it deserves, which is none at all.

Come on chairman, what are you trying to hide?


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