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Bill targets public notice requirements

ATLANTA — A proposal to allow local governments to bypass newspapers and post public notices online is gaining traction at the Capitol, having won the endorsement of a legislative committee on Wednesday.

The bill gives counties and cities the option of posting notices on their official websites instead of paying a newspaper to publish them. Laws that govern when public notices are published still apply.

Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, said he hopes to help municipalities save money while giving them the flexibility to choose how to notify the public. The average savings for a local government could be about $9,800 a year, Heath said.

Heath is carrying the bill at the request of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. The Senate’s Committee on State and Local Governmental Operations passed the bill, SB-186, with a 3-to-2 vote Wednesday.

Todd Edwards, associate legislative director for the commissioners’ group, said the question is whether governments should have to pay newspapers designated as legal organs to publish the notices.

“I believe that’s what it boils down to, and you have to make your political decision on whether or not local government should be subsidizing the legal organ,” Edwards said.

But Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, said he believes a newspaper does more than just print notices. As a third party, it adds accountability to the process by ensuring local governments follow the legal requirements.

Also, a notice published in the newspaper creates a permanent record that cannot be altered after publication, he said.

Georgia’s public notice laws apply to a variety of governmental activities, including public hearings and election notices.

Heath’s bill would require cities and counties to keep public notices online for a year, then publish them in a book, similar to how meeting minutes are preserved.

Kirk said that isn’t enough.

“That’s government watching government,” he said.

Kirk and Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, voted against the bill.

Robert M. Williams Jr., chairman and publisher of the Southfire Newspaper Group in Southeast Georgia, said the proposal creates “an accountability nightmare.”

Williams questioned whether local governments would really save money, considering the cost of maintaining a website. His home county, Pierce, spent $1,440 on public notices last year, he said.

“I promise you, I did not drive four hours here in this morning and back this evening just to save my newspaper from losing $1,440 this coming year,” he said.

The bill includes a provision for citizens without Internet access, or who just prefer print notices. Local governments would have to email or mail notices to those residents who request them.

The bill heads to the Senate’s Rules Committee, which decides if and when it will go before the full Senate. If approved there, it goes before the House.