published Friday, February 18th, 2011

City pushes bill to halt meeting ads, legal notices in newspaper

NASHVILLE — Acting at Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's request, two Hamilton County lawmakers have introduced a bill that would let the city and Hamilton County government advertise meetings and legal notices on their websites and no longer be required to advertise in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"They asked me to bring the bill, and I said I would," said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge. "At the very minimum, it will open conversation. I think it's time to start having a conversation about what role the Internet will play in the future on public notice."

Richard Beeland, a spokesman for Littlefield, said Thursday evening that "we're trying to save some taxpayer dollars this way. We're paying the Times Free Press $75,000 a year by advertising things that we could put on our website and people could get to just as easily."

State law requires local governments to place legal notices in a newspaper of "general circulation," so governments cannot use online publications or their own websites as sole distributors of information.

That serves a vital public service, said Chattanooga Times Free Press President Jason Taylor.

Citizens for decades have counted on their printed media for public notices on everything from government meetings, bid solicitiations, hearings, government meetings, financial disclosures and foreclosures, he said.

"Newspapers play a critical role in protecting the public's right to know by publishing legal notices about government activities," Taylor said. "The public relies on daily newspapers for this information published in a reliable, centralized, readily accessible manner. Requiring printed public notices helps keep our government open and transparent."

Printing legal notices, he said, is a critical component of serving as the information source of record in communities of all sizes.

Notices issued electronically could be manipulated or hidden on websites that would create hardship for citizens seeking critical information, he said. Citizens would have to spend hours researching numerous local and state websites to find information that they now easily access in a newspaper, Taylor said.

The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. The bill, which would affect only Hamilton County, cites a "steady decline in newspaper readership in the past several decades, while, at the same time there has been an increase in the number of households with access to the Internet."

Taylor disputed that.

"I can't speak for all Tennessee newspapers but this newspaper has remained one of the fastest growing newspapers in the nation for three years in a row," he said. "Readership and print circulation are at an all-time high."

Frank Gibson with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government cited a 2010 survey of state residents and said "the biggest problem is that there are huge chunks of the poulation that do not have access to the Internet. One in four people in Tennessee don't own a computer. That number gets higher when you look at the elderly. When you look at the economically disadvantaged and rural, the number goes higher."

Gibson said when government posts a notice on its website "you don't have the protection of being able to verify that something appeared when it was supposed to appear, and it's essentially letting the government post notices when they want to."

The bill says affected government entities would create or have provided by the website contractor — and keep on file — a certification or affidavit of posting "that may be required for each legal notice in the same manner as is done for printed notices." It would state when the notice was posted and its last posting date or when the event described takes place.

It would not be notarized.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he has spoken with city officials about the proposal and while he hasn't read the legislation, "I'd say on the surface it sounds like a good deal because there's an opportunity to save some taxpayer dollars. We spend a lot of money having to put out legal notices."

He said "obviously we want open and transparent government," and noted the county would be "hopeful we would touch as many as possible." But he noted that not everyone subscribes to a newspaper either.

The bill also would affect entities such as Erlanger and the city's municipal service, EPB, Beeland said.

The Chattanooga bill is one of several in the Legislature this year dealing with state laws requiring certain public notices to be published in newspapers of general circulation. Among them is a measure being pushed by the Tennessee Bar Association and Tennessee Bankers Association that would allow advertising of foreclosure notices on the Tennessee secretary of state's website.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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