Come January, Sarasota County Government expected to have webpages dedicated to legal advertisements instead of continuing to pay for notices in print newspapers

Commissioner Ziegler describes facets of the change that would enable county residents to be much better informed about upcoming public hearings

As of Jan. 1, 2023, thanks to a law that the Florida Legislature approved this year, residents and other interested parties no longer will need to get out their magnifying glasses to try to read Sarasota County legal notices in print publications.

Instead, as County Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out during the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 30, the county will host the notices on its website.

That will save county taxpayers about $200,000 a year, Ziegler emphasized.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis confirmed that the county’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — has funding built into it for the creation of the new webpages.

The new state law, which is part of Chapter 50 of the Florida Statutes, says, “A governmental agency may use the publicly accessible website of the county in which it lies to publish legally required advertisements and public notices if the cost of publishing advertisements and public notices on such website is less than the cost of publishing advertisements and public notices in a newspaper.”

Another section of that chapter notes, “All advertisements and public notices published on a website as provided in this chapter must be in searchable form and indicate the date on which the advertisement or public notice was first published on the website.”

On Aug. 30, Ziegler said, “I don’t think there’s a really good argument against [using county webpages instead of newspapers].” He stressed of the expense that the county has been shouldering, “That’s a lot of money.”

Moreover, he continued, “We can actually improve the experience” for the public.

For example, Ziegler said, individuals could be allowed to subscribe to any notices affecting their neighborhoods, similar to how the Nextdoor app works. Moreover, he pointed out, they could sign up for legal notices regarding other neighborhoods in which they have an interest.

“That’s much more engaging,” he added, than just looking at the notices in a print publication.

“I envision … a map of the county with little dots on it,” he continued, on which any website viewer could click to read the public notice affecting that area. “I think it will be a much better experience for citizens. … It will also help inform them more …”

People had been asking him about the county’s pursuit of the change in providing legal notices, Ziegler pointed out, which — he indicated — was the reason he brought it up during his board report that day.

When he asked County Administrator Lewis whether he had described the situation correctly, Lewis indicated that he had.

Lewis added that Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, will need to work with the county’s Communications Department and the Enterprise Information Technology Department on the initiative.

Publications that have been printing government legal notices have pushed back against the new state law. For example, a February editorial in Sarasota Herald-Tribune — which its owner, Gannett, printed in other Florida papers Gannett owns — emphasized that local government websites “can vary wildly in quality and can often be a struggle for citizens to navigate …” The editorial also contended that local newspapers provide “easy accessibility” to the notices.

It added that, as the Florida House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the bill, Tallahassee Democrat Editor William Hatfield testified, “Newspapers continue to provide a third-party alternative that is widely consumed. … Many hundreds of thousands of your constituents rely on them.”

Further, the editorial argued that the new law will make it “much easier [for local governments] to dodge the proper levels of accountability, scrutiny and oversight that exist when there are empowered citizens fully informed about what’s happening in their communities.”

However, in recent public comments to the County Commission, Siesta Key Association Director Robert Luckner referenced a legal notice that had appeared in the Herald-Tribune, pointing out that it was difficult to read the map that was included, to determine whether the proposed issue would affect Siesta Key.

The February editorial does not acknowledge that newspapers will be losing considerable revenue — as Ziegler noted last week — as they lose the legal notice business.