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.”
the House floor
House Bill 1971 passed through the General Government Committee on Wednesday. Eight legislators voted for the bill, while five voted against it.
From here, the bill goes to the House floor for a full vote.
Committee member Scott Martin, R-Norman, voted for the bill, saying he feels like it gives counties and newspapers “flexibility.”
“We’re trying to give the counties and the papers the ability to negotiate,” Martin said. “And this bill is not eliminating the public’s access to the information in any way.”
In fact, he said the bill is in response to a changing world, where “people’s computers are attached to their hips.”
“Readership of papers has dropped in recent years, while online readership has gone up,” Martin said. “Technology is changing and people’s practices, the way they are getting their news, is changing along with it.”
Martin also said the bill puts smaller newspapers in a good negotiating position as they deal with counties.
“If there’s only one publication of record, like here in Norman and Cleveland County, then they (the paper) have the upper hand,” he said. “And I like that.”
Martin said the ability negotiate will allow papers and counties to decide how to proceed once a deal is reached.
“The newspapers and the counties know what’s best for their local areas and this bill will allow them to deal with that on their terms,” he said. “And, in a lot of places, newspapers are already putting them online or looking into doing so.”
Rep Randy Terrill, R-Moore, said he supported the bill in committee because wants to help counties find new ways to do business.
“Counties are certainly looking at new ways of doing business and that’s why I supported this,” Terrill said. “The way newspapers cling to old ways of doing business rarely gets them where they want to be.”
Terrill said that more and more people are getting their news online these days, so it’s a natural transition to move to a practice that requires online notification of legal announcements only. He also said that any complaints from newspapers about lost revenue “are irrelevant.”
“If subscriptions and readership is declining, then newspapers need to find other ways to generate revenue,” Terrill said. “It’s no job of the government, whether that’s federal, state or local, to subsidize newspapers.”
Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, said he voted against the bill because of a story from his past, one that has stuck with him through the years.
Martin said he had a relative, an accountant no less, “who one day decided he’d paid all the taxes he owed for a lifetime.”
“Eventually, his wife was reading the paper, through the notices, and saw (a tax lien on the couple’s property),” Martin said. “That’s how she found out.”
Martin said his relatives’ plight “left an impression on me, and that’s why I believe there needs to be a third party, unified source for those notifications.” He also said that switching to online notifications wouldn’t do the greatest good to the greatest number.
“It would be very easy for some people to find the notices, but it would be very difficult for a lot of others,” he said. “For my constituents, and I think for the rest of the state, the expense is justified at this time.”
Commissioner still thinking about it
Cleveland County Commissioner Rusty Sullivan of District 3 said he couldn’t take a firm stance on the bill, admitting that he had yet to sift through the legislative language.
He did say, however, that if this bill passes on the House floor, legislators should accommodate for a transition period, especially for seniors who rely primarily on newspapers for their news.
“They shouldn’t just cut it off,” Sullivan said. “Seniors aren’t as attune to using the Net, and a lot of them don’t even have computers.”
Sullivan also said lawmakers should make cities follow suit with counties and require them, if this bill passes, to post their legal notices online.
Currently, Sullivan said counties are required to post their notices, but cities aren’t. It’s a lacking uniformity, he said, that he has never understood.
“They need to level the playing field. If we do it, the city does it. If we don’t, the city doesn’t,” Sullivan said. “But we don’t get a vote on this. The state gives us the rules, and we have to play by the rules.”
Transcript staff writer Nanette Light contributed to this report.