By Andrew Knittle
Transcript Staff Writer
If a bill changing the way legal notices are made public continues through the Legislature, access to that information will be limited to only computer-savvy Oklahomans.
That’s the fear of those opposing House Bill 1971, authored by state Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond, which seeks to allow “counties to solicit and accept bids from newspapers to publish proceedings, minutes, notices, advertisements or any other document required by law on the newspaper’s website.”
The measure passed through a state House committee Wednesday by a vote of 8 to 5.
Senate Bill 359, which gives counties the option to put all legal notices county websites only, also has passed from committee and is awaiting full Senate action.
Supporters of the House Bill 1971 say that counties are spending too much to print the notices in newspapers across the state.
The Oklahoma Press Association, which represents newspapers of all sizes across the state, is opposing the House measure, claiming it won’t improve government transparency or make the notifications easier to find.
Bill author Grau said counties in Oklahoma spend nearly $2 million each year printing required public notifications, which have been appearing in newspapers of all sizes for the past 100 or so years.
“I authored this bill in order to save taxpayer money, provide greater control to local elected officials, and to offer governments the opportunity for modernization, and therefore, greater efficiency,” Grau said on Thursday. “The taxpayers of Oklahoma spend over $1.92 million per year just on required newspaper publications for counties. That amount of money would build a lot of roads and bridges.”
Mark Thomas, executive director of the OPA, said Thursday that relying solely on electronic notifications for things such as sheriff’s sales, foreclosures and other county business isn’t in the best interest of the public. Newspapers already post notices to a common website as well as print them in the paper.
“We believe that printed notification that is distributed out to the community is the best way to get the information out,” Thomas said. “People receive it, or they can go purchase a paper, and they have a chance to read it ... and it can’t be changed.”
Thomas said older residents and those who don’t regularly use the Internet “should be very concerned about government attempts to put all of their information on a website and make you go find it.”
“At the OPA we’re for more public notice and more transparency, not less,” Thomas said. “Putting legal notices on the Internet only and hoping that somebody might see them will notify less people than the current system.”
Grau said he would expect the newspaper industry to help with the transition if House Bill 1971 becomes law.
“I understand that not everyone uses the Internet, just as not everyone subscribes to the paper or to all of the papers in which notices may appear,” Grau said. “I would expect newspapers that do publish online to advise their readers in the print version that the online listings are available. Of course, there is nothing in the legislation that mandates newspapers publish online if they believe that it is not in the best interest of their readers.”
Thomas also said that legal notices printed in newspapers “have a proven record of holding up to legal challenges.”
“Websites notify nobody,” he said. “And we don’t believe notification published online only can withstand legal challenges the way printed ones can.”
When asked about the online notifications and how they may hold up in court, Grau had a simple response.
“I expect that they will hold up just as well,” Grau said.
As for the financial impact for newspapers, Thomas said that is secondary for the OPA.
“They’re still going to pay us something, one way or the other,” Thomas said. “But is it going to make for a better system of notification? That’s our main concern, because we don’t think it will.”