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Does Public Notice Bill Stem From Paper’s Coverage?

Sen. Charlie Dean says he’s only trying to help counties save money, but some critics wonder whether his legislation that could strip Florida newspapers of millions of dollars in advertising is payback for tough coverage by a local paper.

Dean’s measure (SB 376) would give governments the option of publishing legal advertising and public notices on the Internet to reduce taxpayer spending. At a time newspapers nationwide are struggling with sharply declining retail advertising, Florida papers fear losing a reliable source of cash.

“We know we need to save money at the county level,” said Dean Ridings, president of the Florida Press Association. “But freedom isn’t free and informing the public can cost money.”

Ridings and Citrus County officials also point out that Dean’s legislation has emerged after the senator drew intense coverage from the Citrus County Chronicle for a barn he built on his property that includes two-bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. A wounded lawmaker frequently is at the center of speculation about how a bill becomes law in Florida.

Dean built the barn in 2007 without obtaining building permits, saying non-residential structures are exempt under the Florida Right to Farm law. Following a complaint by an area man, the matter eventually made its way to Attorney General Bill McCollum, who ruled that his fellow Republican’s structure was a residence – requiring permits.

After further back-and-forth with the county – covered heavily by the paper – Dean was forced to do some restructuring and pay more than $10,000 in impact fees and permits, county officials told the News Service of Florida on Friday.

Dean said this week that he isn’t happy about results of the dispute. But the former Citrus County sheriff also downplayed talk that his Internet legislation grew out of the fight.

“Being a former constitutional officer, I looked at this and said what’s a way that we can cut costs for these county clerks at a time when we keep giving them more responsibility?” Dean said.

But he conceded the legislation could hurt Florida newspapers, including his hometown Chronicle.

“If it does, it is what it is,” Dean said. “The motivation for this is to save money. But if it trims their feathers a bit, fine.”

Dean is still looking for a House sponsor for the bill – and this week, the measure was referred by Senate leaders to four different committees for review, a sign that it may prove a longshot.

Citrus County Chronicle Publisher Jerry Mulligan couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Similar legislation filed earlier this year failed to emerge from House and Senate committees. But supporters say the erosion of newspaper circulation – down 10.6 percent nationally for the six months ending Sept. 30 and even more for some of Florida’s biggest papers, may push the effort forward during next spring’s legislative session.

The Florida Association of Counties has voiced support for the measure. The Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers haven’t taken sides, but Angela Vick, chief deputy for Citrus County Clerk Betty Strifler, said the approach calls for officials to make a balancing act.

“Personally, I think it would be a great idea,” Vick said. “But you have to make sure that enough citizens in your county have access to the Internet.”

Older Floridians, along with low-income and minority residents tend to be less familiar with computers, surveys have shown. Also, Ridings said that Dean’s legislation raises questions about what amounts to an appropriate web display of legal advertising or other public notices.

“How do you show proof of publication when it’s on the Internet, or how long is an ad supposed to be displayed on a web page?” Ridings said.

The legislation would give governments the option of publishing what are now print notices on their own Web sites. A survey by the Florida Senate’s Community Affairs Committee showed 61 cities and counties out of 85 responding said they would eliminate all or some newspaper public ad notices in favor of Internet publication if given a choice by state lawmakers.

The committee also found that Florida newspapers annually earn an average $173,219 from public notices and legal advertising. But for larger newspapers in Florida’s biggest cities and counties, the revenue is clearly much greater.

While Wakulla County reported it spends $3,000 annually on advertising, Miami-Dade County spent $1.1 million on newspaper notices. Orange County’s cost was $323,681 last year, the committee found.

But Florida’s housing crash has echoed through local governments, with two-thirds of counties collecting less in property taxes than a year ago and most tax rates also down, according to a study last fall by the state’s Association of Counties.

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