SALISBURY — This year, legal ads could be pulled from newspapers and placed on municipal government websites.
After polling the 157 local governments, the Maryland Municipal League received one suggestion to move legal advertising from newspapers to online, which led the proponent of local government to name removing the state mandate one of its priorities for the 2013.
The past two years, the organization, dedicated to organizing and promoting municipal government, failed to get the bill out of committee. But, this year, the MML hopes to at least get a floor vote, even though the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association plans to oppose the legislation.
“It’s a really terrible idea for the people of the state of Maryland, because Internet access is widespread in Maryland, but it is far from universal and it is not widespread at all among senior citizens, and it is not widespread among the poor and minorities,” said Jack Murphy, MDDC executive director. “The readership of a government website is miniscule compared to newspapers.”
When legal notices are printed in a newspaper, Murphy said, it ensures citizens that their local government printed the correct information, on time, where it was supposed to. If they’re only posted online, governments could amend, correct or remove certain information in them after the fact, he said.
While no legislation has been prefiled for the 2013 session, Jim Peck, spokesman for the MML, said he expects Sen. Ronald Young, D-Frederick, to introduce legislation in the Senate and Del. Doyle Niemann, D-Prince George’s, to introduce a similar bill in the house.
“Statewide, we estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars saved for municipalities,” Peck said. “The bill is drafted for counties, too, and I’m sure that would give into the millions of dollars.”
While the potential changes would not amount to the millions throughout the Lower Shore, they would save local and county governments a few thousand dollars each year.
According to spokespersons, during fiscal year 2012, Ocean City spent $7,860 for mandatory newspaper advertising, Salisbury spent $29,500, Wicomico County spent $100,000 — $14,000 of which was paid for by the county — and Worcester County spent $62,000.
The 2012 version of the bill, which this year’s legislation will likely mirror, would still require municipalities to put advertisements in newspapers for annexation, charter amendments, a constant yield tax rate hearing and a handful of other changes, but the ads would be much smaller and direct newspaper readers to the government’s website.
A report produced by the Department of Legislative Services last year stated several counties reported the cost of setting up a website or webpage for legal ads may cancel out any savings they get from not posting in a newspaper.
Because the bill also requires counties that post legal notices online to offer a free subscription service, Baltimore and Montgomery County officials said that costs could increase depending on how many residents signed up for subscription services. Charles County said expenses could increase by more than $500,000 depending on how many residents enrolled in subscription services.
Locally, Salisbury City Council member Laura Mitchell said she would like to see the legislation passed to reduce the city’s spending.
“I think there is a contingent of people who still don’t use the Internet as much and rely on having printed versions of the newspaper, but that’s a shrinking segment of our population,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also suggested printing out and posting the legal notices on a bulletin board outside the City Council’s offices on the third floor of the Government Office building.
Murphy mentioned a similar scenario to explain how ineffective he believes posting legal ads to a municipal website would be.
“It’s about as effective as posting on the bulletin board outside the mayor’s office; maybe they’ll see it, maybe they won’t, but not many people will go to the mayor’s office to check,” Murphy said.