Legal Notice Requirement a Financial Drain on Local Governments

In case you missed it, print is dying. Not just in the codification industry (as we’ve previously discussed), but newspapers, magazines, and other publications are also slowly headed towards the big paper mill in the sky. However, there are still a few things physical newspapers are utilized for. One of those things is legal notices.

Once upon a time, in the pre-Internet days, states passed laws requiring cities and counties to publish summaries of new ordinances in a local newspaper of record. It was a time when the only way to view passed legislation was either access a physical copy of the city code or trudge on down to city hall. The summary publication statutes ensured that municipalities were notifying the public of all government activities, including hearings and meetings.

An example of this is Section 35A.12.160 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), which includes the following language:

Promptly after adoption, the text of each ordinance or a summary of the content of each ordinance shall be published at least once in the city's official newspaper...
…a summary shall mean a brief description which succinctly describes the main points of the ordinance. Publication of the title of an ordinance authorizing the issuance of bonds, notes, or other evidences of indebtedness shall constitute publication of a summary of that ordinance. When the city publishes a summary, the publication shall include a statement that the full text of the ordinance will be mailed upon request.

These summaries aren’t exactly front page news. In fact, you’ve probably never noticed them because they’re buried in the classified ads under a section titled “Legal Notices.” To give you an idea of what these notices look like, here’s the summary of Ordinance 2528 passed by the city of Sumner (WA) in July 2015, as published in the Tacoma News Tribune:

Here’s a link to the online version of the summary (which is not required by the letter of that law, we might add). Well, a link to a Tribune page that sends you to another page where you can view the summary – after you type it into a search. That seems like a lot of work, right?

These summaries are treated like standard classified ads. In other words, they aren’t free, and can be quite costly. (If millennials won’t help keep newspapers afloat, then archaic, money-draining state laws will certainly help pick up a bit of the slack.) The combined cost of the print and online summaries of Ordinance 2528 set Sumner back roughly $70. And that’s for a small one.

To give you an idea of how much money these required summaries are costing cities, since April of 2011, Sumner has passed roughly nearly 200 ordinances. While most summaries fall in the $70-$120 range, they’ve gone as high as $350. If every ordinance summary cost a flat rate of $100, that translates to almost $20,000 spent in the last four-and-a-half years.

With city budgets getting tighter by the year, this amounts to a lot of unnecessary spending. Especially now that every city has a website and newspapers all have an online presence. The good news is newspaper publishers realize this wasteful spending. There's even a searchable database of legal notices provided by participating newspapers across the country. This service is provided at no tax payer expense. But, despite such benevolence on the part of the newspaper industry, it's still not an official record and the state laws remain on the books.

So, where does a codifier like Code Publishing fit into all this? We offer a service that falls in line with the spirit of the Washington law, and for a fraction of the cost. Every municipal code has an ordinance table. It's tucked in the back of the code along with various other tables and appendices. The ordinance list is a great reference tool because it includes links to corresponding code sections, as well as a brief description of the subject of each ordinance.

However, our ordinance linking service goes one step further, as CPC hosts the original PDF files of the ordinances (as submitted by the city or county) and makes them available for download. Downloading an original ordinance with one click is certainly more efficient than waiting for a summary to appear in a newspaper or for full text of an ordinance to arrive via snail mail. Pierce County (WA) is one example of a large customer that utilizes ordinance linking.