Opinion by Mike Hobson
Most states have laws requiring public notices to appear in local newspapers. These notices alert interested citizens to actions their governments are taking. Newspaper readers tend to be interested citizens and more concerned about their local government actions than the average person.
But according to the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school and research organization, more than a dozen states have introduced legislation that would move public notices from newspapers to government websites during the past decade. Before 2022, none of those bills had passed, mostly because of opposition from state press associations, a Poynter article said.
But this year, Florida lawmakers approved a bill that allows government agencies to post their legal notices on government websites if they determine it costs less and they can show there is sufficient broadband access for residents to easily see them.
In Alabama a new law (Act 2022-208) quietly was passed in 2022 and is already in effect. This new law allowed tax collector options for handling the sale of delinquent tax properties. Officials handling real property tax sales are now permitted to choose an online tax sale instead of the traditional and time honored practice of holding a public auction on the court house steps. The law also allows the public official to choose to publicize tax lien auctions in a traditional public notice newspaper or to advertise on an online website controlled by the tax collecting official’s website.
Already in 2023 many Alabama county tax collectors have elected to publish their 2023 tax sale notices on a website operated by a third party vendor. Bibb County Tax Collector Angie Langston reported to the Bibb County Commission on February 13, 2023 that 41 Alabama counties have already decided to utilize a third party vendor site called GovEase to publicize tax sales this year. She said there would no longer be newspaper advertising for tax sale properties. The GovEase website will also manage online auctions of properties sold by the tax collectors.
According to the 2022 Act “the tax collecting official’s decision to change the current remedy used for collecting delinquent property taxes shall be published on the tax collecting official’s website or by advertising for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper with general circulation in that particular county, all of which shall occur not later than October 1 when the property taxes become due and payable.” (Code of AL 40-10-182).
Further, the code requires :
The tax collecting official shall notify the delinquent taxpayer of the auction and all charges pursuant to Section 40-10-183 at least 30 days prior to the tax lien auction by first class mail and by any one of the following:
- Advertising for once a week for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper with general circulation in the county where the property is located.
- Advertising on an online website controlled by the tax collecting official and accessible from the tax collecting official’s website.
- Posting at the courthouse of the county and if possible in a public place in the precinct where the property is located.
(2) The notices shall declare the time, the method, whether online or in person, and the location of the auction.
(c) The tax collecting official may auction or sell tax liens representing delinquent taxes for any year taxes are delinquent and unpaid.
The new Alabama law does not clearly establish or authorize third party vendor websites as a method of publication as an option, however, it appears that many Alabama counties are moving ahead with online methods of publication.
Handing public notices and information over to third parties to control or trusting in government to distribute information solely on their own websites is not in the best interest of property owners or to taxpayers and the public in general. The traditional Alabama law has always specified strict due process procedures before the government can seize and sell your property.
If notice to the property owner that your property is about to be sold for taxes is only available on a government website is the government looking out for your interests at the same time they are trying to seize and sell your property to collect their delinquent taxes?
The Alabama Press Association already operates a FREE public website which lists all public notices that have been published in printed newspapers in this State. Newspapers that print public notices are required to also upload the data to the APA website.
Online notices are already accessible online by millions. But how many people would go to a certain website to look to see the bidding process for a road project or a tax sale? Many property owners depend on printed newspapers for public notices. Readers of newspapers don’t have to go search the web to discover these things — they are presented with these notices, and we believe this is good thing.
A public notice, once published, is out there. No one can unpublish an entire run of newspapers. But an unscrupulous official can easily alter the notice on a website he or she controls. Dates can be manipulated to make it appear a notice was posted at a time other than when it actually was. Only a printed copy of a newspaper notice, with an affidavit of publication, is accepted as prima facie evidence of publication in an Alabama court of law.
If a public official neglects to post a required notice on a website, will they be able to post it later and claim it was there all along? There are a lot of questions and not enough answers when it comes to trusting governments to post these notices.
Which leads us to the archive aspect of newspaper publication, which is important, too. Independent publication protects governments that do things properly. If a legal question about the publication of information arises in the future, the proof is there. On the other hand, it opens up bad actors to the consequences they deserve if they can’t prove they acted as they should.
Governments today have more power and more influence than ever before. For those who still value self-governance, community newspapers across the state are still around to hold those governments accountable.
Publishing public notices is a part of that accountability process and the public should not sit by and ignore the value of printed publications for taxpayers and property owners. Alabama newspapers have already learned that more legislative proposals regarding newspaper publication of legal notices will be on the agenda for the 2023 session.
If you have concerns about the future of required newspaper publishing of public notices please contact your area State Senator and Legislator and let them know where you stand on this important issue. Legislator awareness about public interests are the key to defending your rights when new legislation is proposed in our state process.