Government, newspapers square off over legal ads

March 08, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • Young

ANNAPOLIS — The newspaper industry clashed with government Tuesday over a proposal to allow counties and municipalities to publish required legal notices on their own websites.

Under state law, government bodies must take out newspaper advertisements to alert their communities of government hearings, annexations, tax rates, bids and similar proceedings.

Government leaders say the requirement has become wasteful as more people turn to the Internet for information.

But newspaper representatives argue that newspaper legal notices are effective and contribute to democracy.

In his bill, Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, a former mayor of Frederick, proposed that any county or municipality be allowed to post legal notices on its own website instead.

It would be required to place a newspaper ad explaining the switch in advance.

Governments also would have to offer free mail subscriptions of legal notices to residents.

"Everybody wants government to be more efficient and remain transparent, and I think this allows them to do both," Young said.

During a bill hearing Tuesday, government officials said they could save money by skipping newspaper ads.

Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz said his city usually spends about $35,000 a year on legal ads. The same notices could be distributed on a city e-mail list with more than 1,700 subscribers, he said.

"This is not about the newspapers," Katz said. "This is about the money."

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert/Charles/St. Mary's, the committee's vice chairman, argued that money shouldn't be the only factor.

"When openness of government suffers, or transparency in government suffers, I'm not sure that, to me, that's the most important thing we can spend money on," Dyson said.

A Maryland Association of Counties chart shows that the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City spent nearly $1.9 million on legal ads in fiscal 2010.

But Jack Murphy, the executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, questioned the accuracy of the chart, which lists Anne Arundel County as spending nearly $429,000 on legal ads in fiscal 2010.

He said the press association — which includes The Herald-Mail — found through a public records request that Anne Arundel's legal-ad costs for the first half of 2010 were less than $23,000.

Other debate focused on whether enough of the citizenry is connected to the Internet and whether information gathering has evolved.

Young's wife, Karen Young, president pro tem of Frederick's Board of Aldermen, testified that in a city survey, 66 percent of respondents reported getting information about Frederick issues from the city's website.

Karen Acton, the president and publisher of Southern Maryland Newspapers, countered that newspapers provide local information not available elsewhere and act as a government watchdog.

"At this time, when government trust is not necessarily at an all-time high, it would be a mistake to reduce the amount of visibility of these public notices," she said.

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