In February, county to begin publishing legal notices on its website

Commissioners unanimously approve the switch from print publications to save money

On Jan. 18, Sarasota County commissioners pushed back against public speakers who contended that moving most of the county’s legal ads online will lead to less transparency about government business and not save the county money.

The comments came as the board members were considering a proposed county ordinance whose drafting they had requested. The ordinance would enable the creation of county webpages for legal notices, in lieu of continuing publication of those ads in newspapers. The change was made possible by the Florida Legislature’s approval of an amendment to Chapter 50 of the Florida Statutes, a county staff memo explained. The state law went into effect on Jan. 1.

The commissioners ended up voting unanimously in favor of the proposed ordinance, citing the fact that advertising the legal notices on the county website is expected to save taxpayer money.

A June 15, 2021 county staff report produced for the commission, which focused on the coming change in state law, included a chart showing how much the county spent to advertise public notices in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Sunnewspapers and the Observer from the 2016 fiscal year through May 28, 2021 of the 2021 fiscal year. The totals ranged from $190,958.42 in the 2016 fiscal year to $219,793.82 in the 2018 fiscal year. The total amount for the five full fiscal years and part of the 2021 fiscal year was $1,149,857.25.

Of those funds, the report noted, about 94% — $1,078,041.38 — went to the Herald-Tribune.

The figures included just what was spent by departments under control of the County Commission, the report emphasized. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained on Jan. 18 that if the commission approved the ordinance, it would affect only the advertising by those departments, not the county’s constitutional officers, such as Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county controller.

Although board comments during the Jan. 18 discussion indicated that it could be a while before the county began providing the notices on dedicated webpages, a county newsletter issued on Jan. 20 said the process would start in February. The affected legal ads will be those regarding rezoning and Special Exception applications, plus amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth.

“These notices will no longer be submitted to newspapers,” the newsletter pointed out. However, it said, public hearing notices for budget amendments still will be published in newspapers “as required by Florida statute.” Additionally, the newsletter noted, “All property owners within 750 feet of the boundary line of the subject property will still receive a by mail notification for the related public hearing.”

In arguing against the county’s plans to shift notices online, Jim Fogler, CEO of the Florida Press Association, told the commissioners on Jan. 18 that while the number of daily newspapers continuing to appear in print is shrinking, “Our onlinereadership is growing.” In fact, he continued, Sarasota’s daily newspaper, the Herald-Tribune, has nearly 80,000 readers online each day, for one example.

A letter he had sent to the commissioners in advance of the hearing pointed out, “A newspaper’s web audience is typically 10 times larger than most city or county websites, and Florida newspaper sites reach 51 million unique only online users in any given month.” The letter further noted, “Newspapers also serve an important role as a permanent record of public notices.”

Emily Walsh, president of the Observer Media Group, which is based in Sarasota, and the chair of the Press Association, told the commissioners, “The state Legislature would like you to believe that newspapers are dying. That is incorrect.” She emphasized, “Florida is unique.” In fact, Walsh continued, the Press Association’s membership is growing, and the largest number of those new members are weekly publications. The latter, she said, have become the media companies of record in a number of communities.

Walsh also contended that if the county published its legal notices with the Observer in North County and the Adams Publishing Group, which owns the Sunnewspapers and the Venice Gondolier, the county would have 100% coverage of residents, instead of the 6% coverage afforded by running the ads in the Herald-Tribune.

Further, both Fogler and Glenn Nickerson, publisher of the Daily Sun and the Venice Gondolier, pointed to the state website that aggregates newspapers’ legal ads — — which the Press Association provides. It “is the best in the country,” Nickerson said, with an “enormous audience.”

If the commissioners approved the proposed ordinance that day, Nickerson added, that “will hide government from residents of Sarasota County. People vote for leaders who champion transparency,” he emphasized.

David Dunn-Rankin of Venice, president of D-R Media and Investments LLC, whose family company previously owned the Sun newspapers, then told the commissioners, “Staff has come forth with a proposal to substitute government in place of private enterprise.” Yet, he continued, “We haven’t had the chance to make our case with you all.”

He suggested that the board members put their decision about the ordinance on hold for four weeks, so the newspaper company representatives could talk with them, as county staff members have done.

“What is the problem to be solved here? “” Matt Walsh, one of the owners of the Observer Media Group, asked the commissioners. “You all are good, conservative, free-market people. … Why would you want to increase government costs” and take over the dissemination of public information.

Finally, James McGuire, a media law and First Amendment attorney with the Tampa firm Thomas & LoCicero, pointed out, “The goal [with publishing legal ads] is to make sure the citizens are notified of what is going and that they have an opportunity to participate. Those are the people that employ you …”

He added that a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll conducted in the state in 2020 found that 86% of Floridians believe that legal notices should be published in the newspaper, and “Sixty percent of Floridians say that they are unlikely to go to a government website” to review legal notices.

Countering the arguments

Following the public comments, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out to the speakers, “Not one member from the public has showed up to defend you all.”

She added, “Basically, this comes down to money”: Legal ads “bolster the revenues of newspapers.”
While noting that she subscribes to two print newspapers, she acknowledged, “I’m a dying breed.”

Moreover, Detert continued, the county has been spending more than a hundred thousand dollars a year “to advertise in your papers.”

In response to board questions on Jan. 18, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department — which is responsible for most of the public notices, as noted in that June 2021 staff report — explained that one full-time employee in his department would handle all of the legal ads on the webpages, and procedures had been put in place for that process, including what happens if corrections are necessary.

For that matter, Osterhoudt said, county staff members have been handling any issues that arise with the print ads, including corrections.

Detert also told the media representatives, “The younger folks … don’t get their news from newspapers”; instead, they use the internet.

As for the comments regarding one-on-one meetings with the board members: Detert added that the speakers could have requested appointments at any time.

Commissioner Michael Moran concurred with a couple of Detert’s assertions.

First, he said, no one had sought an appointment to discuss with him the potential change in legal notice advertising. “You don’t need a lobbyist to talk to us.” All anyone has to do, he added, is call the commissioners’ assistants and set up appointments.

Moreover, Moran said, if anyone talking with a person under the age of 30 asked whether that young individual obtained information from a print publication or by going online, the young person “would literally think you’re joking with the question.”

He added that he was “not comfortable,” either, with the implication that older individuals still rely on print publications. He cited examples of family members to contradict that.

Further, Moran stressed, “Things change.” When he first started working with his father in the insurance business, he continued, he used pencil and paper to quote policy costs, for example.

Moran also asked the media representatives, “What if you go out of business?” and the county has been continuing to use print publications for its legal notices.

Commissioner Mark Smith, who is an architect, took the opportunity to point out that county staff posts signs on property that will be the focus of public hearings for rezonings and Special Exceptions. Additionally, he said, staff sends out the formal notices to nearby property owners who could be affected by the results of the hearings, as noted in the 2021 staff report.

People who “happen to run across an ad by chance” in a newspaper are not usually those who come to hearings, Smith also stressed. “It’s the folks that get [the notices in the mail].”

Moran ended up making the motion to approve the ordinance, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded it.

“Today’s world is a digital world,” Neunder said. His three children — ages 15, 10 and 7 — are attending private schools where they are being required to learn how to use iPads, he added.

Nonetheless, Neunder told the media representatives that the commissioners may have “accommodations or compromise as we move forward” with the transition to online advertisements through the county website.

Just before the vote, Detert added that county residents will be able to view the notices for free on the website, instead of having to pay for newspaper subscriptions to see them.