City seeks alternative to legal notice ads

City seeks alternative to legal notice ads

November 22nd, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in News

Chattanooga wants to advertise its own meetings and legal notices on its website and not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to advertise in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"It doesn't make sense why people couldn't search our own website," said Richard Beeland, spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.

Newspaper industry officials disputed claims of any savings to taxpayers and said lawsuits from taxpayers angry because they missed an important city meeting could cost municipalities more than the ads.

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Chattanooga has spent thousands of dollars over three years to run legal notices in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

2008-09: $74,000

2009-10: $91,000

2010-11: $75,000

Source: Chattanooga

Under state law, local governments are required 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.

Chattanooga advertises its regularly scheduled City Council and committee meetings, special council meetings, bids for work orders and contracts and foreclosures in the newspaper.

The city has been in talks with the Tennessee Municipal League and soon will speak with local state legislators about drafting a state statute that would allow the city to advertise on its website its own meetings, public bids and other legal notices, Beeland said. He said the city also plans to draft ordinances within a month to change some codes that don't allow the city to advertise on its own website.

One Tennessee newspaper official called the city's idea "horrible," while others said newspapers are the most effective and reliable way to get legal notices to the public.

"This would be a terrible disservice to the general public and their right to know," said Times Free Press President Jason Taylor. "Legals in a published, printed format also serve as a historical reference from the day they print forward and can be validated immediately, without ambiguity, unlike public notices issued electronically, which after the fact can be abrogated or manipulated for the benefit of government versus the people."

Art Powers, president of the Tennessee Press Association and publisher of the Johnson City Press, said, "I don't think the system right now is broken."

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the city has not contacted him about the state legislation. Some bills to allow online notices came up during the last session but died in subcommittee, he said.

Watson said he has not studied the issue but is open to hearing reasons for allowing online notices.

"We have to realize online news services are a reality," he said. "They are not going away. They are going to get bigger."

Beeland said cost is a large part of the reason for the proposal. The city has paid more than $240,000 in advertising to the Times Free Press over the past three years. The city's budget this year is $185 million.

"The Internet is like a big bulletin board that goes out to a lot of people," Beeland said.

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said Friday he might be interested in pursuing a change in legislation because it "might be worthwhile" and "save some money."

Powers, though, warned against being too hasty. He said there are a lot of problems with cities or counties posting online. The information may not be as reliable because it can be altered, he said, and cost savings would be negated by public employees working on government websites on taxpayer time.

"What is the real savings in that?" he asked. "I don't see it."

Carol Hudler, president and publisher of The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, said allowing governments to publish their own notices was a "horrible idea" because the data wouldn't be transferred to the public effectively.

Hudler said citizens may not have access to government websites. If they missed a meeting time, lawsuits could result, she said.

"Any money they were hoping to save would be wiped away by a lawsuit," she said.

Hudler said local governments quickly would learn that their websites don't reach nearly as many readers as newspapers.

"They don't get that readership, nor will they," she said.

Some Hamilton County elected officials had differing reactions to the idea of posting public notices on the Internet.

County Clerk Bill Knowles said his department spent $8,700 this year on legal notices for County Commission meetings. He said the possibility of savings needs to be considered.

"It would be an attractive thing for all governments," he said.

Clerk and Master Lee Akers, however, said he thought the best bang for the buck is advertising in the local paper. He said most of his legal notices, which include delinquent taxes and foreclosures, are paid for by litigants and not taxpayers.

"There's a lot of people who still don't know what the Internet is," he said.

He said his office tries to publish in the medium that reaches the most people.

"We felt like we got a lot more coverage with the Times Free Press," he said.