Legal notices webpage makes its debut on Sarasota County website

New process replaces most advertisements in newspapers

Sarasota County staff has unveiled the new public notices webpage that the County Commission unanimously authorized during a public hearing on Jan. 18.

The link to the webpage was provided in the Feb. 17 edition of the county’s News and Updates report.

That report said, “Sarasota County is committed to transparency, being fiscally responsible and keeping the community informed. Sarasota County will publish public hearing notifications such as rezone/special exceptions and Comprehensive Plan Amendments to the new web page.”

The Feb. 17 Updates report also pointed out, “All property owners within 750 feet of the boundary line of the subject property [in a legal notice] will still receive a … notification [by mail] for the related public hearing.”

Additionally, county staff announced the new webpage on its Facebook page, writing early in the afternoon of Feb. 17, “#ICYMI Our Public Notice Program and brand new webpage are now live! This program was created to:

Increase efficiency in relaying public notices.

Make public notices more accessible and ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant.

Allow for greater transparency between Sarasota County and the public.

“For more information, visit us at #SRQCountyPDS,” the post concludes.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the county commissioners voted unanimously on Jan. 18 to approve the switch to posting most legal ads on a dedicated webpage. Although speakers during the Jan. 18 public hearing urged them not to do so, the board members pointed out that the county will save taxpayer money as a result of the change, which was allowed by a state law that went into effect on Jan. 1.

A statement about the state law is included on the new county webpage.

Additionally, the webpage includes a section where members of the public can sign up to receive public notices via email. A person may choose all public notices or just those that fall within from specific categories: Board of Zoning Appeals hearings, Planning Commission hearings, and budget, land-use, and Procurement notices.

Further, the webpage features a map showing the locations that would be affected by land-use petitions submitted to the county.

“Basically,” Commissioner Nancy Detert explained during the Jan. 18 public hearing, “this comes down to money”: Legal ads “bolster the revenues of newspapers.” The county, she told news media representatives in the audience, has been spending more than a hundred thousand dollars a year “to advertise in your papers.”

A June 15, 2021 county staff report produced for the commission, which focused on the state law, included a chart showing how much the county spent to advertise public notices in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Sun newspapers 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.

No later figures have been provided publicly, to the News Leader’s knowledge.

Jim Fogler, CEO of the Florida Press Association, plus representatives of the Sunnewspapers in South County and the Observer Media Group in Sarasota were among the speakers during the Jan. 31 public hearing who contended that the use of county webpages would lead to less transparency involving county government.