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Florida lawmaker refiles 2019 bill to allow governments to post legal notices online

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Focus on the Legislature

By John Haughey | The Center Square

Legal notices on back pages or in the classified ad sections of newspapers have never made for scintillating reading, but even before the United States was a nation, they’ve served an important function in informing Americans what their government was up to.

But with printed newspapers losing readers and digital news sites gaining in relevance, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, maintains it’s time to allow Florida governments the option of posting public notices online rather than mandate they do so by purchasing space in a printed newspaper.

House Bill 7, filed by Fine on Dec. 13 and co-sponsored by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-In-The-Hills, would require legal notices be posted on a “publicly accessible website,” which could include “a governmental agency’s official website or other private website designated by the governmental agency for the posting of legal notices and advertisements that is accessible via the Internet.”

Fine introduced the same bill last session – the 2019 Public Notice Reform Act – with a Senate companion sponsored by Sen Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lady.

Fine’s bill passed the House but never advanced in the Senate.

In addition to reducing the cost of purchasing space in print publications, Fine said last year his bill would:

• Eliminate the legal requirement for governments and, in some cases, for private citizens, to purchase print advertising for public notices, but require “online, storable, searchable public notices.”

• Create “a free market” that would allow other entities to “compete for the publication of public notices” and give governments the option to publish the notices themselves.

• Require publishers of public notices to mail free, via first-class mail, copies of all public notices to the public – create a “direct-mail” option.

Florida law requires state and local government agencies to purchase newspaper advertising to let the public know about important deadlines, code changes or events, such as public hearings, development proposals and job vacancies unless in a county without a newspaper printed at least once a week.

HB 7 would not prohibit agencies from buying newspaper ads and require them to buy an ad once a year in a publication “delivered to all residents and property owners throughout the government’s jurisdiction” to inform them that they can register to receive public notices by email or via the mail.

The bill is certain to be opposed by Florida’s newspapers, the Florida Press Association and the National Newspaper Association, which will reiterate its warning that newspapers provide an “independent, third-party verification” that legal notices are published, rather than having a governmental body publish its own legal notices on a website, for example.

According to the Public Notice Resource Center (PNRC), there were 360 public notice-related bills filed in 47 state legislatures in 2019, including 80 that passed and were signed into law.

Most added new notice requirements, the PNRC documents, although there were 11 that, like Fine’s proposal, sought to remove the most public notice from newspapers. None passed.

“That number is about the same as [2018] but compares favorably to 2017 when lawmakers in 26 states introduced legislation to eliminate newspaper notice,” the PNRC states.

The closest any came to being passed was in Indiana, where a bill that would have moved mortgage foreclosure notices to municipal websites passed the House but failed in the Senate.

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