COLUMBIA — The sponsor of a bill that would allow counties to post legal notices on county websites instead of in newspapers says the proposal would save taxpayers money and alert more people to government announcements.
But the leader of the S.C. Press Association, which represents newspapers across the state, contends the bill would hurt the public and small newspapers.
“We think (the) bill would completely do away with public notice in South Carolina for counties because no one will read them on the Internet,” said Bill Rogers, the association’s executive director.
Greenville GOP Rep. Wendy Nanney sponsored the bill, and this is the third consecutive legislative session in which she’s filed similar versions. State law has long required counties to run notices for issues, such as elections and public meetings, in local newspapers. Nanney’s proposal would leave intact the requirement that counties run notices of elections in newspapers.
“We need to move forward as a state,” she said. “With (newspaper) readership dwindling, it’s wrong to continue to think that we are adequately notifying the public when a small percentage actually see the newspaper.”
P.J. Browning, publisher of The Post and Courier, disagreed.
“Rep. Nanney is solely looking at print readership numbers when newspaper audience has grown significantly with the focus we have added to online,” Browning said. “In the true spirit of a public notice, running this information on a limited-audience website fails all reasonableness tests at this time.”
Browning also said, “We are very concerned that this bill was initially pushed through without going to committee.”
The legal notices are a significant source of income for newspapers, particularly smaller ones.
“I think some smaller newspapers might not exist if it weren’t for legal ads,” Rogers said.
Nanney said she was told by Greenville County’s administrator that the county pays about $1 million each year to run the notices in newspapers.
The S.C. Association of Counties supports the bill because it provides additional flexibility to counties, said Robert Croom, the association’s deputy general counsel.
To Rogers and the Press Association, which is lobbying against the bill again this year, public notice is important and worth spending money on.
Rogers said two years ago the Press Association did a study in Darlington County in which about 200 unserved warrants were placed on the county sheriff’s website and a different 200 unserved warrants were run on a local newspaper’s website. The newspaper website drew seven times more responses to the warrants than the sheriff’s website, he said.
Nanney said her bill, which lost six co-sponsors Tuesday — all Republicans — is all about government efficiency. “I’m not doing this to attack the papers, I’m doing it to save money for struggling counties,” she said.