Keep public notices public

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Keep public notices public

By Graham Osteen
Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013   |  649 Words  |  

A frustrating, ongoing battle for the South Carolina Press Association -- and press associations across the country -- involves attempts by some state legislatures to move printed community public notices from county seat newspapers to the endless frontier that is the World Wide Web.

This in effect hides a community's public notices from the public by scattering them online versus publishing them in a given county's newspaper of record, where they are published in print (and usually online also) by a trusted source that's easy to find.

A public notice is, in simplest terms, a notice given to the public regarding certain types of legal proceedings.

In The (Sumter) Item, for example, the "Legals" appear in print and online, and include public hearings, estate notices, foreclosures, probate action, notices of sales, summons, bid notices, beer and wine licenses and abandoned vehicles and boats. You can learn a lot about any community simply by reading the legals, and many news stories are generated as a result, such as recent public hearings for a strip club in Sumter.

One of my favorite examples occurred in Darlington County years ago when I was publisher of the Hartsville newspaper. A public hearing notice came in about a company's intent to locate a gigantic factory hog farm just outside the city limits.

We ran the public notice, as required by law and also started doing stories about exactly what a "mega" hog farm would mean for the city of Hartsville. People raised a stink about it, to put it mildly, and the issue was resolved. No hog farms for Hartsville.

Imagine the implications for any community if citizens are expected to search various websites just to find out what may be coming down the pipe from individuals, businesses or their own local government. In the pages of a community newspaper -- and on our related websites -- there is at least a fair chance for anyone to be made aware of such issues.

Here are some key points in the battle to keep public notices in front of the public:

  • Allowing the government to post legal ads takes away third-party neutral interest. It's unfair to citizens in a democracy.
  • Digital-only legal ads are open to alteration. Printed legal ads provide a record of notices that can't be altered.
  • People will not read legal ads on the Internet. A recent survey by an independent polling company showed that nearly 80 percent of South Carolinians think governments should be required to publish legal notices in newspapers. Only 4.8 percent would read them if they had to search for them online.
  • Putting legal ads on the Internet would mean that only South Carolinians with computer access would have access to such important information.
  • Even if citizens do have a computer, they must make the effort to find multiple Internet sites. Legal ads for an entire community are usually found in a particular section of the paper, which is easy to find. If each government agency posts its own legal notices, there won't be a comprehensive way for the public to access notices.
  • There is no proof of publication or security with a website. Newspaper ads are there in black and white for all to see.
  • Newspapers provide sworn affidavits that ads were published along with physical tearsheets of the ad as printed. The cost to a county or municipality defending a single improper notice action could far exceed the cost of legal ads for an entire year.
  • In an unexpected maneuver, House Bill 3427 bypassed the normal committee process to go straight to the House floor for a vote.

    Tell your legislator you don't want hog farms and strip clubs sneaking into South Carolina communities unannounced.