When a city or county government makes big decisions — especially those decisions that involve raising your taxes or making zoning changes that could affect the value of your property — it is required to place a public notice in the local newspaper.
In Georgia, those local community newspapers where public notices can be easily found are called “legal organs.”
The Georgia General Assembly has defined in state law what it takes to be regarded as a legal organ newspaper.
State law requires that the newspaper be located in the county and if there happens to be more than one newspaper of general circulation in that county the probate judge, sheriff and clerk of courts can determine the newspaper that is designated legal organ status, where public notices must be placed.
It is not a perfect system but it is a good system, and state lawmakers designed it to protect the public’s right to know.
Public notices must be public and the only way to make sure the public will be made aware of such things as a property tax increase or a zoning change is by publishing that information where the most people are likely to see it — the local paper.
Georgia Press Association general counsel David Hudson recently reported in GPA’s Georgia Press Bulletin on a Court of Appeals case this year where the courts affirmed the importance of local newspapers and the legal organ status.
Hudson reported, “The dispute before the court arose from a decision of the Catoosa County probate judge, sheriff and clerk of court to change the legal organ newspaper from The Catoosa County News, located in the county seat of Ringgold, to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which claimed to have 5,000 subscribes in Catoosa County” (Ga. Press Bulletin, March 2019).
According to Hudson, the courts determined that just because the Tennessee newspaper distributed papers in the small Georgia town does not mean it meets the standard of being the legal organ there. Being a local paper means more than just being sold in stores or having subscribers there. A local newspaper must have a presence in its community.
You can purchase a copy of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal in most Starbucks but no one would ever regard those newspapers as their local community paper, or expect to find local public notices in them.
The court’s decision in the Catoosa County case was spot on and clearly demonstrated the importance of legal organ newspapers publishing public notices in Georgia.
Georgia lawmakers should be paying close attention and follow the leader, in this case the state court of appeals, by protecting the public’s right to know and resisting efforts by misguided lawmakers mad at their local newspapers who try to periodically lift the requirement for local governments to place public notices in the paper.
Removing the publishing requirements and merely burying public notices on some obscure government-controlled website does not punish the newspaper nearly as much as it punishes the public, the people of Georgia.
Don’t conceal the people’s business or even make it difficult to find.
CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI’s regional editor for its Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is the vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.