Contrary to county Commissioner Kelly Robinson’s apparent misquote of an audit report during Monday’s work session, the Douglas County Sentinel has not been disqualified from being the county’s legal organ, according to one of the state’s top open government attorneys.
“I think you will find that the Douglas County Sentinel is the only newspaper published in Douglas County that meets the requirements of (state law),” attorney David Hudson wrote in a letter to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
Hudson represents the Sentinel and is general counsel for the Georgia Press Association.
State law dictates qualifications to be a legal organ newspaper including the rates for legal notices.
During Monday’s BOC work session, Robinson attempted to quote an audit report done at the beginning of the year by Mauldin and Jenkins for the county.
Robinson said there had been “disqualification” of the Sentinel to be the county’s legal organ “for not providing financial records accordingly or a financial audit for over a decade.”
Hudson, in his letter to the BOC and County Attorney Ken Bernard, made clear that state law does not require legal organ newspapers to file financial statements.
The law, OCGA 9-13-142, requires the legal organ to provide proof of paid circulation, and the Sentinel publishes that information every year as required.
The county’s sheriff, probate judge and clerk of superior court have the discretion to decide the legal organ newspaper from qualified publications, according to state law.
“It is important to us that our leaders and the Douglas County community know that we are and have always been in compliance with state law,” said Rachael Raney, publisher of the Newspapers of West Georgia. “We fully meet all requirements of the law to be the legal organ of Douglas County. This is a responsibility we do not take lightly. We at the Douglas County Sentinel are honored to continue to serve Douglas County as the legal organ.”
On Tuesday, the BOC voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on amending the county’s code of ordinances to add state law on legal organs and to issue a RFP for the legal organ.
The only reference in the Mauldin and Jenkins report that comes close to Robinson’s comments Monday is a finding that the county government hasn’t “completed any review of eligible legal organs in the last ten years.”
Robinson did not respond to a voicemail or email message seeking comment.
David Roberts, who presented the Mauldin and Jenkins report during a May 3 BOC work session meeting, did not return a telephone message seeking comment about the report.
Legal notices, like the BOC, city council and school board’s annual budget and millage rate hearings, have been published in legal organ newspapers in Georgia counties for more than a century.
“The newspaper is the ideal and most reliable place,” said Jim Zachary, editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and a First Amendment advocate. “It is a trustworthy place for readers in the community.”
Zachary said governments often try to take the legal organ status away from a newspaper when they feel they are not getting favorable coverage from that newspaper.
“It is honestly a shame because they feel it is not flattery,” Zachary said. “The newspaper is not trying to pick a fight, just report the news. Somehow, people react to the coverage and try to strip the newspaper of the legal organ. People who do that are not being good public servants.”
The audit report also recommended that the county enter into a contract with the Sentinel to be the legal organ. State law doesn’t require such an agreement, and the BOC can not adopt that into a local ordinance, according to Hudson.
Under Georgia law, to be a legal organ, the publication must be a printed product and contain not greater than 75% advertising content. The newspaper must also have 75% paid circulation.
“Your county is fortunate to have the Douglas County Sentinel serving its citizens as the legal organ newspaper, and it appreciates the opportunity to do so,” Hudson wrote.