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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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Will county commissioners privatize public notices?

By KATHY LEIGH BERKOWITZ Editor, The Winter Haven Sun and Polk News-Sun

The Polk County Board of County Commissioners has discussed the possibility of not relying on newspapers to advertise their legal notices, and on Sept. 5, they will be taking a vote on the matter.

Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey notes “My position has been the advocate and fan of local media, and I understand it is an important revenue stream … my colleagues are more leaning to more technology, more online and less reliance on print media,” Lindsey said, by phone with the Winter Haven Sun.

He also believes that the “general public” does not know nor care whether the notices are in the newspaper or on the county’s website.

Likewise, Commissioner Neil Combee told the Winter Haven Sun in a phone interview that “it is hard to ignore,” since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill allowing local governments to run their legal notices on their websites, providing they can do it cheaper than they can in the newspaper.

“County staff seems more interested in creating something and not relying on any newspapers,” Combee said.

The Winter Haven Sun reached out to the remaining three commissioners on Friday, Aug. 25, via a phone message through the secretary at their office to see what their opinion was on the matter. Combee confirmed that the message had been received from the BoCC office. Commissioners Rick Wilson, Bill Braswell, and Martha Santiago did not respond prior to the news deadline; however, the BoCC office reported that Santiago was on vacation.

It is expected that the matter will come to a vote at the Sept. 5 BoCC meeting.

Here are some things to think about – newspapers are indeed alive and well.

According to a CODA study commissioned by the Florida Press Association, every month, 15.1 million – or 86% of Florida adults read local print or digital newspapers.

Total digital readers number at 13.7 million, or 78% of all readers, and total print readers number at 11.2 million, or 63% of readers.

More than 7 out of 10 Florida adults also access local digital newspaper content through a smartphone.

When we asked Florida citizens, “When you are seeking information on city council meetings, public meetings and public notices on such issues as tax increases, zoning changes or minutes of local government meetings, which of the following sources do you most often rely on for this news?” according to the Coda Ventures Study, “Florida citizens responded and 52% said local newspapers/newspaper websites, which is much higher than any other source.”

A petition published by D-R Media & Investments, the owner of Polk County newspapers – The Polk News-Sun, The Winter Haven Sun, and the Four Corners Sun on all of our websites and social media pages, noted that “Legal notices have always been published in newspapers, serving as a reliable source of information for residents. They provide transparency and ensure that citizens are aware of important matters such as public hearings, land use changes, zoning decisions, property auctions, and other significant events that affect our daily lives.”

Additionally, the petition reads that “By removing legal notices from newspapers and making them harder to access on a government website, the Polk County Commissioners are effectively limiting public awareness. Not everyone has regular access to the internet or is tech-savvy enough to navigate complex online platforms. This change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations who rely on printed media as their primary source of information.”

The petition requests that Polk County Commissioners reconsider their proposal and maintain legal notice publication in local newspapers; preserve existing practices and also explore innovative ways of enhancing accessibility through both print and digital mediums; and maintain transparency within our community by ensuring that all residents have equal access to vital information.

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Staff Reporter

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