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Bill would end requirement for government legal notices in newspapers

Fifteen counties and Baltimore City spent a combined $1.9 million on legal notices in fiscal year 2010

March 07, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

State Sen.Ronald N. Young is again trying to end a requirement that governments pay for legal notices in local newspapers.

Legal ads tell the public about contracts going out to bid, public hearings, proposed tax rates and other proceedings.

A Maryland Association of Counties chart shows that 15 counties and Baltimore City spent a combined $1.9 million on legal notices in fiscal year 2010. Washington County’s total was $26,784.

Young, D-Frederick/Washington, is sponsoring a bill to let counties or municipalities publish notices on their websites instead. Anyone who wants printed notices could sign up to get them in the mail.

Young’s bill revives a debate about whether newspapers are a dying breed and how much the public cares about the workings of government.

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The bill failed in committee last year, but this year has more co-sponsors — including state Sen.Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington — and a House version.

Laurence Levitan, a lobbyist for the city of Gaithersburg, said during Tuesday’s hearing that it comes down to money — newspapers will fight to keep it, but governments should be able to save it.

Local government officials testified that the public doesn’t pay attention to the newspaper notices.

On the other side, Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, of which The Herald-Mail is a member, said about half of the people in a survey reported never looking at a government website.

State Sen.Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert/Charles/St. Mary’s, spoke firmly in favor of keeping legal notices in newspapers. The expense “is a small price to pay for democracy,” especially when the public already has a low opinion of government, he said.

Karen Acton, CEO of Post-Newsweek Media, which includes The Gazette and Southern Maryland Newspapers, said legal ads aren’t a windfall for newspapers, but they’re important for public awareness.

Even though newspapers also publish legal notices online, said state Sen.Edward R. Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, more news organizations are starting to charge for access to their websites.

If it’s not an issue of money, then print the notices at no charge, Young challenged the media representatives.

The legislature also is considering a proposal to repeal the requirement that the state comptroller publish a list of abandoned property accounts in the newspaper.

Instead, the comptroller would buy ads in local newspapers at least once a quarter directing the public to an online database.

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