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Fight over public notice advertising in Indiana newspapers could grow wider

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EVANSVILLE — People don't need to see certain public notices in newspapers, says area legislator Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville. It's an online world now.

The sentiment, simple and declarative as it is, has ignited a debate that touches on generational, economic and educational divides.

McNamara, who represents parts of Posey and Vanderburgh counties, said her aim is no less than to modernize Indiana's public notice system. But press advocates and other supporters of requiring public notices in newspapers say limiting the notices to digital publication would make it harder for people without internet access and enabling devices to see them. Disadvantaged persons would be denied access unless they could get bus fare to travel to public libraries.

Borders says newspaper access necessary

Besides, Bruce Borders (R-Jasonville) said, it's much easier and commonplace to find public notices in newspapers than by navigating government websites, as McNamara prefers.

Borders, a Greene County legislator who attends property sales, opposes McNamara's current bill to eliminate the requirement for published notice of sheriff's sales of foreclosed properties in newspapers. The bill has passed in the House and awaits Senate action.

"It really bothers me that we are basically pretending that people are going to navigate to a government website looking for this information, and that’s simply not going to happen, I think in 99 cases out of 100," Borders said. "The ‘serial purchasers’ from out-of-state who buy up large amounts of property — they are the ones who are savvy enough to have a staff that checks out websites."

McNamara countered that bank lawyers, professional investors, contractors, rental companies, mortgage companies and other financial institutions are the ones who dominate the sheriff's sale market anyway. "Mom and dad" prospectors — often neighbors of foreclosed properties — usually don't have the financial wherewithal to compete.

Questions about accuracy of price claims

But this is really about reining in some newspapers that McNamara said grossly overcharge for public notices of sheriff's sales. Some charge as little as $100 for notices, she said, while others charge as much as $1,700.

The Legislature has to intervene, McNamara said — even though taxpayers aren't the ones footing the bill. All fees associated with sheriff's sales — including the cost of newspaper ads — are paid before the sale by title-holding banks through their attorneys.

"I do believe newspapers throughout the state of Indiana are using (Indiana's public notice requirement for sheriff's sales) as a subsidy," McNamara said. "There is no rhyme, no reason, no explanation, and no reason given for why such a disparity exists between charging for these ads. And especially these ads – well, this business, I should say – has become kind of a cottage industry."

But there are questions about the accuracy of McNamara's numbers. She said the Evansville Courier & Press charges "about $800 average net" for a public notice of sheriff's sale. The actual figures range from $325 to $525 for ads that must run weekly for three successive weeks, starting at least 30 days before the date of sale.

Last year, 2 percent of the newspaper's total advertising revenue came from sheriff's sales, according to data provided by Evansville-based Lieberman Technologies, which manages the sales for Vanderburgh County, and the newspaper itself.

Broader agenda?

McNamara's past remarks suggest she may have a broader ambition to eliminate requirements for newspaper publication of any kind of public notice. That would include notices showing how local governments spend public money on salaries and budgets, which zoning variances are being requested and school performance data. They would be found instead on government websites. 

"As a state legislature, we should not be costing citizens dollars to publish any types of public notices in my opinion, but for sheriff's sales in particular," she told the House Financial Institutions Committee in January.

McNamara acknowledged she made the remark, but she insisted it was "taken out of context" because she's focusing only on sheriff's sales. 

Are there, in fact, any other requirements for public notices in newspapers that McNamara would like to eliminate?

The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation shouldn't have to pay to meet the newspaper public notice requirement for its school board meetings, said McNamara, director of early college high school for EVSC.

"Schools, I think if you’re going to require schools to do that, I would say schools should be free," she said. "We look for cost savings for school corporations. Every time they have to put an ad, or if they’re mandated to put an ad in the paper, that’s costing school corporations money that could be going to other things."

Ad effectiveness motivation for law, Key said

Steve Key, attorney for the Hoosier State Press Association, said the push to abolish required newspaper public notices comes from people and organizations that have something to gain by it.

It's not just those who benefit by eliminating the cost of the newspaper ad.

It's often "the people who have to go through the trouble to publish the notices," Key said — the ones who have to navigate publishing deadlines, collect tearsheets and facilitate payment.

"The other motivation for some is that they (ads) are effective," Key said. "And as a school superintendent in Lake County once told a publisher, ‘The only thing that happens when we publish public notices is people come to our meetings to give us crap about what we’re doing.’"

Phil Lieberman, founder and partner at Lieberman Technologies, offered a 10-item list of tasks his company no longer would have to perform if McNamara's bill passes. Lieberman Technologies also manages sheriff's sales for 18 other counties, and that includes using legal data to create legal ads and facilitating publication and payments.

"I'm not in favor of this bill because I'm going to have to do less work," Lieberman said. "I'm in favor of this bill because the public will pay zero."

But Lieberman quickly corrected his mistake, acknowledging taxpayers don't pay for the public notices. Likewise, his company's $100-per-property parcel management fee comes out of the fees paid by title-holding banks.

Where do you find the sales?

Lieberman argues that people find it more difficult, not less, to find sheriff's sale ads in newspapers.

"They'd have to actually find that edition of the newspaper, that particular day, and find (the ad)," he said. "Our (sheriff's sale) site is up 24/7. Any time of any day, they can go to our site and find whatever it is they (need) — free."

The site is updated nightly and is typically available to the public before the day's newspaper shows up on doorsteps, Lieberman said.

But it does require some navigation.

Go to vanderburghsheriff.com. Click on the "areas" tab, then go down to "sheriff sales." At the bottom of that page, find "February Notices." The letters are in blue. Hit that, and then you can peruse the pages of notifications.

"All the sales in the paper are right here," Lieberman said. "The ad in the paper costs $300 (actually anywhere from $325 to $525). This is zero."

Lieberman acknowledged taxpayers don't pay for newspaper notices of sheriff's sales. But he thinks it's unfair that plaintiffs in sheriff's sales — banks, usually — have to pay.

"Why have it in the newspaper and make everybody pay that money?" he said. "Why should the plaintiff have to pay money to publish it in the paper if it's already on the web?"

McNamara's bill doesn't prohibit the placement of foreclosure sale notices in newspapers, but no one believes sheriffs would ask companies like Lieberman's to continue the practice. The Indiana Sheriffs' Association supports McNamara's bill. So does the Indiana Bankers Association, McNamara said.


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