The Catoosa County News will challenge a decision by three constitutional officers to give the newspaper's "legal organ" status to an out-of-state newspaper.
The officers — Sheriff Gary Sisk, Probate Court Judge Jeff Hullender and Superior Court Clerk Tracy Brown — signed a resolution Friday, Nov. 30, to turn The Catoosa County News' (CCN) legal advertising over to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The switch is set to occur Jan. 1, 2018.
Otis Raybon, CCN publisher, said the newspaper will seek a court injunction. The Times, he maintains, does not meet the state's requirements to be the county's legal organ.
Georgia law requires, among other stipulations, that a newspaper serving as the county's legal organ be "published within the county — for at least two years," Raybon said.
The three constitutional officers say the Times "will open" an office in Ringgold that will be staffed Monday through Friday.
CCN, which has an office located near downtown Ringgold that is open Monday through Friday, has served the county's readers for 68 years, since August 1949. It currently employs an editor, two part-time news reporters, a part-time sports editor, and an advertising representative.
Probate Court Judge Hullender informed CCN by letter in July that it would be "considering what the best resource for legal publication will be."
Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson, in a letter to Hullender, said a Georgia Supreme Court case, Carter v. Land, made clear the intent of the law: "... to aid in the building of the locality to be served by the newspaper advertisements. Georgian have always possessed a great desire of local pride and determination to patronize home industry and to build up local institutions."
Legal advertisements, a major source of revenue for newspapers, include notices such as sheriff's sales, probate court citations, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and more, which is why the decision on legal status is left to the sheriff, probate judge and Superior Court clerk.
CCN follows without any variance legal advertising rates that are set by state statute. Those rates have not been changed by the Georgia Legislature since 1994.
"We reinvest the money we earn from legal advertising," CCN Editor Don Stilwell said. "We put that revenue back into the community, for our readers both in print and online, in a lot of ways — the best Catoosa County sports coverage around, community news, school news, church news, upcoming events, special sections and lots more coverage that no other newspaper provides for Catoosa County residents."
"These three constitutional officials, with their decision, have put The Catoosa County News in jeopardy," Raybon said. "Catoosa County could possibly be left without a community newspaper."
Talks began in July
"We have been discussing this with them back and forth since July trying to reach an agreement," Raybon said.
"We want to be able to sit down with the three officers and have a conversation and discuss it again," he said. "We don't believe that an out-of-state newspaper, such as the Times Free Press, which is published in Tennessee, can be named legal organ in a Georgia county. And we also don't believe that the citizens of Catoosa County want — even if another newspaper has more subscribers than we do — to give up their local newspaper. So we plan to fight that change while we work out the details and have an impartial court decide if the Times Free Press meets the legal qualifications according to Georgia law. We are certain that we meet every requirement of the law to be the legal organ for Catoosa County, Georgia. The Catoosa County News already meets them, for 2018 and beyond."
The three constitutional officers said several factors played into their decision.
"The Chattanooga Times Free Press has a circulation that reaches more than double the households in Catoosa County as the Catoosa County News and therefore presents an opportunity for a larger segment of the population of Catoosa County to have access to official or legal advertising," they said.
Also, they said, "The Catoosa County News is only a weekly publication and advertising requests must be submitted a week in advance for publication the following week. This creates delays in some legal actions and advertisements. ... The Chattanooga Times Free Press is a daily publication and advertisements can be presented the day before publication with the exception of weekends."
"We do plan to challenge it in court," Raybon said, "and we do plan, if we are successful, to seek attorney's fees and court costs associated with this fight. This is not a fight between the Catoosa County News and Times Free Press. This is between the Catoosa County News and the three constitutional officers."
Raybon said he asked Sheriff Gary Sisk to notify him when, and if, the three officers decided to meet for a final decision on the matter, asking that CCN representatives be allowed to attend that meeting. "Then they met privately," Raybon said, "and didn't include anybody in the meeting, as far as I know. I had expressed a desire for us to be included in and bring my attorney. While there is no state law saying that meeting has to be public, he did tell me verbally that he would tell me when the meeting was to take place and that I could attend."
This is the second time constitutional officers have considered transferring the newspaper's legal organ status to the Times. Fifteen years ago, in 2002, three constitutional officers held public meetings on the matter, which helped change their minds. This time they did not offer public meetings.