The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted Tuesday to begin publishing legal notices on its own website and social media platforms, ending the long-running publication of notices in the Gainesville Sun.
The ordinance passed unanimously, but commissioners, who had just heard a presentation of the county’s equity efforts, voiced concerns about rural and low-income citizens who might not have ready access.
In a motion by Commissioner Ken Cornell, the BOCC decided to switch to in-house publication of legal notices while using the savings to regularly purchase print advertisements and other outreach that direct readers to county caches of information. County staff will return with a plan to implement the motion.
Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby said the shift, allowed under a new state law, will expand access as legal notices enter the digital age. He said the Alachua County website received 1.2 million unique visitors in six months, and its Facebook page has 97,000 likes.
He said the Gainesville Sun only has an online and print circulation of 8,663 readers with 37,000 likes on Facebook. Legal notices are also available without restriction on the Sun’s website and floridapublicnotices.com.
Crosby also said the county would save money by bringing notices in-house. Alachua County spends between $60,000 and $100,000 each year for notices, and Crosby projected a single staff member could handle the job in no more than a quarter of their work hours.
Under HB 7049, the county is also required to maintain a registry of local citizens who want to receive notices via email and or first-class mail. Mainstreet will report on those details as they become available.
The ordinance was narrowly tailored to apply only to county notices, but Crosby said the county could later expand to offer legal notice services to the School Board of Alachua County, constitutional officers such as the supervisor of elections, and cities within the county.
Commissioner Mary Alford floated the idea of a both/and solution—continue traditional print notices while adding notices to the county’s website and social media.
Crosby said traditional legal notices don’t have enough value for the money being spent and also countered questions about poor broadband and low-income availability.
“We have thought about it and doing both does not seem to get the value for what you’re paying for,” Crosby said. “It’s simply just a matter of keeping the norm, what people are used to, in place longer. You can hang on to those relics as long as you can, but sooner or later, it’s going to go away.”
Chair Anna Prizzia agreed that the county should do more outreach instead of less. Instead of continuing to print legal notices, she suggested taking the savings and putting them toward expanded community engagement and outreach—a topic that had also cropped up on the previous agenda item.
During discussion on the item, Diedre Houchen, equity and community outreach manager, said she hopes the county soon has a permanent community engagement office with a door for citizens to walk through and staff prepared to assist anyone who enters.
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut asked if the community was ready for a shift in legal notices to online only. With his work in the funeral business, Chestnut said print obituaries still have value and he said people pick up papers on a one-off basis without actually subscribing.
“I’m beginning to question a lot of things that come out of the Legislature lately, and here’s another one,” Chestnut said. “They attack our home rule authority. Now, it looks like they’re messing with the print newspapers.”
Chestnut and Alford initially signaled they would vote against the ordinance but then joined the majority after further discussion.
Prizzia, Chestnut and Alford each said they had heard from constituents who did not want notices moved exclusively to the county website.
Representatives from the Florida Press Association, Mainstreet Daily News and Gannett, owners of the Gainesville Sun, attended the hearing and offered public comment.
Rick Christie, executive editor of the Palm Beach Post, said older citizens still rely on print and expecting them to dig through a government website for the notices is flawed.
“While the digital revolution has many consumers shifting to news online, we all know our residents’ demographics,” Christie said.
J.C. Derrick, publisher of Mainstreet, noted Mainstreet’s legal notice rates are half of the Sun’s, so the county could guarantee savings “and keep the public trust” at the same time. He said if county projections are off, it could end up spending more, not less.
After the hearing, Derrick said he was cautiously optimistic that the remainder of the process could yield a better result for Alachua County residents.
“I was encouraged by the commission’s commitment to notify the public through new engagement efforts, including the use of social media and advertising in a newspaper,” Derrick said. “This new plan does not eliminate all of our transparency concerns, but if they follow through, it would go a long way toward mitigating citizen concerns about an effort to obscure public notices on a government website.”