Lawmaker Proposes Allowing Online Legal Notices

By John Celock

A Republican lawmaker in Kansas is proposing to allow local governments to move their legal notices online, a move that could save property tax dollars but hurt local newspapers financially.

Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow cities, counties and school boards in the state to move legal notices to a local government website instead of publishing them in a local newspaper. He stressed the potential cost savings as his main motivation. Claeys’ bill is part of a national trend from state legislators to change the practice and move legal notices online.

“Elected officials in Saline County expressed an interest in reducing the legal notice cost to taxpayers and I’m responding to that request with this bill introduction,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “In Saline County I’m told by county officials a change to online notices could save taxpayers two mills in property taxes.”

Claeys acknowledged that some newspapers “may” see a drop in revenue without the legal notice money. The bill, which was introduced into the House Local Government Committee, would give local governments throughout the state the option of moving online.

States began requiring legal notices, including land use applications, proposed ordinances, property auctions and meeting notices, to promote open government. In recent years, state lawmakers have proposed moving the notices online in order to save local governments tax funds. The notices have been known to be large revenue source for local newspapers.

Legal notice publications are traditionally governed by placing the notices in newspapers within a certain distance of the local government involved. State laws regarding legal notices traditionally mention print publications and not online only publications.

Utah lawmakers formed an online site in conjunction with the Utah Press Association in 2009 that allows for all legal notices in the state to be searched online along with in print publications.

The Kansas Press Association executive director Doug Anstaett told The Celock Report that the association is opposed to Claeys’ idea, noting that fewer people would read the notices and that it would end transparency. He also acknowledged the fiscal situation the move could place his members in.

“We think this is a horrible idea. Rather than encourage transparency, it will offer government an opportunity to hide their notices on a website that very few, if any, people will ever visit,” Anstaett said “In addition, it will put significant pressure on our small-town newspapers, who are already suffering economically and might not be able to absorb another hit of this magnitude. Newspapers have been and continue to be the best place to put notices; websites are unreliable, they can be hacked and they don’t provide the availability that newspapers provide for this kind of important information.”

Anstaett said that the association was in the process of sending out an alert to its membership regarding Claeys’ bill.

Anstaett told The Celock Report that website can be easily hacked and changed, while print newspapers can provide a permanent record of the notices. He noted that courts would be able to have a record of the notices in any future disputes.

Claeys said that his bill would only provide an option to local governments and they would be able to determine if they have the online resources to start publishing the notices and securing them.

“Because this only offers the web site as an option, our city, county and/or school district can determine if they have adequate resources to provide legal notices on the Internet,” he said.

Erik Sartorius, the executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said that the League does not have an official position on Claeys’ bill, but noted that it has been under discussion by local leaders. He said the League’s board would be meeting later this week to discuss the bill.

He noted that Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) recently endorsed more electronic information.

“Historically it is something that cities have looked to and counties and local units of government,” Sartorius told The Celock Report. “I think Secretary of State Kobach testifying on some of his bills this session, talked about where people go to get information. I think the secretary of state’s views and others is it is electronically.”

Anstaett disagreed with the concept that people are looking online. He said that the move would decrease readership of legal notices.

“While it might save dollars in the short run, how will government communicate with citizens? The Internet? Give me a break,” he said. “No one goes to the Internet searching for public notices and if they do, who can find them? There are hundreds of thousands of websites, and government websites get the least traffic of any of them.”

Claeys said that he disagrees, noting that if you do not receive the newspaper you will not read the notices. He said there are ways for a person to read online notices for free.

“A similar argument could be made that taxpayers do not read the notices in a newspaper that they may not subscribe to while Internet access is available at libraries and notices are available free of charge at county, city and district offices,” Claeys said.