Alachua County Votes to Use Website-Only Posting of County Legal Notices
The Alachua County Commission at its September 26 meeting approved an ordinance allowing the use of the county website to post legal notices.
The assistant county manager presented the proposal and was clearly on board with it. His slides claimed the county website had a large social media presence, paper’s annual subscription fee, pointed out its lower circulation numbers, claimed that costs of the website would be a quarter of the time of one staff person “about $20,000,” and mentioned that Sarasota County had received negligible requests for mailing of the notices.
Two commission members had issues with the website mainly on the ground that print was still relied on among certain minority or elderly sectors of the population. They questioned if residents were “ready” for government website notices. The other three commissioners favored the proposal. They suggested other ways of getting the word out to the community could be used with the money saved including “slow scrolling” messages on TV, social media, and taking out general ads in newspapers. A couple of members pointed out falling circulation and lack of local coverage of some newspapers but noted that others had a hyper local focus on community issues.
Newspaper reps, league of women voters rep. and FPA staff spoke and laid out the arguments: surveys showing newspapers are where people look for this info, reach of newspapers, free products, third party oversight, costs of the website including postage, etc. The commission debated and the motion was amended to allow the website but also to require additional efforts to reach out to the public including general newspaper advertising (which they did not elaborate on.) The motion then passed unanimously.
- It’s crucial for the public to email commissioners and appear at the hearing to speak against the websites and for newspaper notice (the push etc.).
- The central message is that using often obscure gov. websites is an attempt by government to lessen transparency. The minimal cost savings (.0001 of the budget in this case) is not really the issue.
- The local newspaper should lobby commissioners and staff. Staff, however, should not be relied upon to relate the message to commissioners and that communication to the decisionmakers should be direct.
- The postage cost can still be an issue despite claims to the contrary. If only 300 residents sign up for snail mail and there are 200 notices a year, then postage alone is almost $40,000. Does not include staff time to sort and mail.
- County ads like zoning hearing notices cannot be “buried” in the regular legal ad section of the newspaper—they must be placed in the regular news section—statutory language to this effect.
- The legal ads are free to access by the public—paywalls and subscription fees are barred by law. There was some confusion about this.
- The main challenge will be in counties where paid newspaper circulation has flagged and local events are not being covered and why should they pay for ads? This issue came up several times. One commissioner noted, however, the ad revenue could mean funds to hire an additional journalist but this did not resonate.