St. Mary’s commissioners will vote on an administrative resolution on Tuesday to potentially bypass state laws on legal advertising in newspapers, in order to publish notices in a newspaper owned by a former county commissioner and local grocer.
While commissioners have published legal notices, which are required by state law to give public notice to some important hearings, in Southern Maryland News and its predecessor, The Enterprise, for years, Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) recently suggested switching to The County Times, a free newspaper, at a commissioners’ meeting a few weeks ago, in a discussion about an economic development tax incentive which required a public hearing.
He said the reason for the switch would be to support the business, which is headquartered in St. Mary’s, rather than Southern Maryland News, which is owned by APG Media of Chesapeake based in Easton, but maintains an office and employees in St. Mary’s.
“We’re trying to work with our businesses in the local area, we’re trying to have investment in the local area, and we’re using our advertising to send it over to Easton or something,” Morgan said.
After the commissioners published a few legal notices in the tabloid paper last week, Southern Maryland News informed the board that The County Times does not qualify as a newspaper of general circulation per state law, as it is a free paper.
A newspaper of general circulation is a newspaper that “has been published and distributed by sale, from an established place of business,” state law says, but it also says the definition only applies “unless otherwise provided, in a law, resolution, or court order, judgment, or decree.”
Commissioners are banking on that line to publish legal notices in the other paper, drafting a resolution to circumvent the definition.
County Attorney David Weiskopf said he is “creating a resolution that can take care of the fact that it does not [sic] have to be a paid newspaper” that will be presented Tuesday to give the commissioners “the ability to choose between Southern Maryland News and The County Times.”
The commissioners are expected to take action on this during their Tuesday, April 20, meeting.
Rebecca Snyder, the executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said publishing in a free newspaper goes against the spirit of legal notice advertisements because there is no way of accounting for how many people actually read it.
“They don’t know whose picking it up, or how many people are getting it at the end of the day,” because there is no record of selling copies of a free paper, she said.
Southern Maryland News is a paying member of MDDC.
Public notices are a way to inform local communities of specific issues that affect them, including foreclosures, government hearings and the opening and closing of estates, Snyder said.
She said public notices are required to be published in newspapers that provide other news of interest.
“We believe, because notices are the vegetables of information, you need to put it in with, you know, some strawberries,” such as a community newspaper, she said.
They also can’t be placed in a newsletter provided by the commissioners themselves, so that they can be independent of government control, and should be in a permanent medium, such as a print newspaper, and not solely on the internet.