published Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Hargett staying out of battle over newspaper legal ads


by Cliff Hightower

Tennessee Secretary of State Tré Hargett said this week he is not pushing the Tennessee General Assembly to pass bills allowing some legal notices to be published on government websites rather than in newspapers.

• Authorize online news sites to publish legal notices, providing the sites reach a majority of county residents.

• Create a pilot program in Knox County to allow legal notices to be posted on a government website rather than the newspaper.

• Authorize Tennessee’s Secretary of State to define a “newspaper of general circulation” for purposes of deciding where legal notices can be published.

Source: Tennessee General Assembly

Though several bills on the topic have been introduced, he said he doesn’t think the issue is a legislative priority.

Legal notices are required by state law to notify the public about upcoming government meetings, bids for goods and services and other government or legal proceedings, such as foreclosures or public hearings.

Lawmakers have proposed legislation that would authorize the secretary of state to determine whether a publication is a “newspaper of general circulation” for purposes of deciding where legal notices can be published.

Hargett downplayed his office’s interest in the proposals, which he called a “political football.”

“It’s not something we’re looking to do,” Hargett said this week during an editorial board meeting at the Times Free Press. “It’s not our initiative.”

Some Tennesseeans might “want to go to the Internet,” while others prefer newspapers, he noted.

State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, who filed two bills in the House that would move legal notices to government websites or allow their publication by “electronically published newspapers,” said he’s not sure the issue has legs either. But he said he wants to start a conversation among lawmakers.

“Things are moving in areas that we didn’t see 10 years ago,” Dean said.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is sponsoring the Senate version of the Dean’s legislation. Given the pervasiveness of electronic media, “it appears to be an inevitability,” he said.

Their bills only deal with Hamilton County. Both lawmakers have said they acted at Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield’s request. City officials said they budgeted $75,000 this year for legal ads and want to reduce that expenditure.

Art Powers, publisher of the Johnson City Press and president of the Tennessee Press Association, said it would be a mistake to post foreclosure notices only on a government website.

“Nobody is going to know anything about that,” he said. “Some counties don’t even have a website.”

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said 25 percent of Tennesseans don’t use the Internet. He agreed with Powers that putting foreclosure notices on a state website would be confusing for the public.

“The best location is local,” he said. “Not a state website.”

Gibson also said placing meeting notices on local government websites rather than newspapers is ludicrous. He said some local governments would have to set up sites at taxpayer expense.

Hargett acknowledged there would be a cost associated with his office handling legal notices. If the legislature tells him to, he’ll do it, he said.

David Smith, spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam, said Thursday the bills are in the governor’s “legislative review process.”

Several bills have been introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly this year that would move legal notices out of newspapers. A few of the bills would:

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