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FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW

By DAVID DUNN-RANKIN

D-R Media & Investments

The Polk County Commission wants you to know as little as possible about their actions. It appears at least two of the county commissioners are voting on September 5 to take their legally required notices to the public and bury them on some random page on the county’s website.

Want to know if a new big development on your street is up for a rezoning hearing? These county commissioners want to bury that from view.

Right now, the county places those kinds of notices with printed newspapers.

Those printed notices also go to the newspaper’s website and the statewide public notices site. The county commissioners claim they want to make public notices essentially private, because public notices are costing county taxpayers $45,000 out of a multi-billion-dollar county budget. Does anyone believe, with all the money the county is spending, that it is about saving $45,000? Or is it really about limiting the public’s knowledge of just what their elected officials are up to?

When it was pointed out to the commissioners that half of the county’s cost of public notices was not paid by the taxpayers, but by those developers rezoning property, it didn’t matter. Soon, rather than get maximum publicity for these major impacts to your neighborhood, the county commission will hide those on an obscure page of their website. Why?

It appears their impending decision is really about hiding information from you under the guise of saving money. The county has a bid from this newspaper to provide the county a public notices website at no charge, plus run the public notices in the digital paper, plus post the notices to the statewide website, plus develop and promote an email list where citizens can pick and choose which kinds of public notices they would like – all at no charge. We would email you new developments within two miles of your house if you chose. School district public notices if you are interested. Delinquent property up for auction for investors to keep abreast of.

Our bid is at no charge because the cost to publish digitally is so small and we already have so much other public notice business with the software tools already in place. On the other hand, there is a cost to the county to build and maintain a website, plus have a notary provide affidavits for all the notices.

Why would at least three county commissioners choose to spend more of your tax dollars in order to give the public less access to public notices?

The public notice law requires that if a county wants to publish notices only on its website, they must do so cheaper than the newspaper.

Our quote is cheaper than the county and the county has received an outside legal opinion that what they are doing violates the state law, but some of your elected officials are prepared to vote in favor of hiding public information on their website anyway.

We feel this is about limiting your right to know what the Polk Commissioners are doing. If the county creates its own website for public notices, it is required to put in the U.S. Mail all public notices to any residents who wish to receive them that way.

If just 1,000 households in this large county sign up for public notices to be mailed to them, it will cost the county three times what they are currently paying to use newspapers.

In a public meeting, one commissioner asked the county attorney what can be done about that. The county attorney, who is paid for by county tax dollars, said he would just automatically remove any residents from the mail list if they did not take the time and effort to sign up again each and every 12 months.

Many of your commissioners applauded that idea, banking on the hope that you will forget or not be motivated enough to renew.

Legal notices have been published in newspapers for decades because they are third-party sources of public record which provide independent verification that all aspects of any required notices have been met. If the county insists on assuming full oversight of legal notice process on its own website, how will any of you know all the requirements have been followed?

This exact same move was entertained by commissioners in Citrus County a few months ago, but after members of the public raised the same questions about transparency and liability, the board reversed course and halted the action.

So, write the county commissioners and tell them you want to know as much as possible about their actions, not as little as possible, and also show up on September 5 to voice your opinion before they vote. They don’t believe you care, but you can demonstrate you do.

Consider attending the Tuesday, September 5 meeting and letting the commissioners know you want to know more about what they are doing – not less.

The address of the Polk County Board of County Commissioners is 330 W. Church Street, Bartow. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. and continues to 11 a.m. The County Commission Board Room is on the 1st Floor.

County Commissioners and their Contact Information:

George Lindsey

[email protected]

Rick Wilson

[email protected]

Bill Braswell

[email protected]

Martha Santiago

[email protected]

Neil Combee

[email protected]

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Staff Reporter

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