NJLM addresses misuse of public notice ad survey data

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bill, S2855 A4429, which would have ended the requirement that public notice ads be published in newspapers, was knocked down in the state legislature in December, Christie is vowing to revisit the bill in 2017.

The bill sought to end a requirement for public notice ads and notices to be published in New Jersey’s newspapers and allow municipalities to post these ads online. Christie has argued that the bill would save taxpayers millions, while critics have argued that the bill would have cost taxpayers money and led to hundreds of job losses.

Christie has also claimed that the state’s 16 daily newspapers and 120 weekly newspapers receive $80 million in annual revenue from the publication of public notices.

But the bill is not the only controversy brewing, as the New Jersey League of Municipalities is pushing back against dissemination by some in the media of a survey it conducted, a caveat of which is that the results are inaccurate and skewed, which the NJLM made clear to all who requested the survey results.
After Christie’s newspaper bill came to light, the NJLM conducted a Newspaper Legal Advertising Cost survey, which included 147 of the state’s 565 municipalities. The survey conducted found that 147 municipalities paid a total of $1.05 million to publish notices in 2015.

But the NJLM made it clear to both Christie, who requested the numbers from the league, as well as editors and reporters who also asked for the results, that the results were not to be relied upon as an accurate portrayal of actual cost to municipalities.

In a Jan. 26 letter put out by the NJLM to the mayors of all of the state’s 565 municipalities, the league reiterated the caveat related to the survey.

“As public discourse continues over pending legislation that could impact municipal requirements to use printed legal advertising notices, we want to clarify public misrepresentations of survey sample data that was collected by the league, while at the same time attributing that data to the league,” NJLM Executive Michael Darcy wrote in the letter. “In our view, the survey sample collected by the league does not shed useful information on this issue.”

The NJLM stated in the letter that the caveat of the survey needed to be made “absolutely clear.”

“The league itself did not publish this survey sample because we knew it was not statistically reliable and could not reasonably be used to draw conclusions applicable to many municipalities,” stated the letter. “The league released the survey sample to the Governor’s Office and the media when they requested it from us with the explanation that it should not be used to extrapolate beyond that small sample. Anyone who checked with us regarding the survey information was similarly cautioned about it. … It’s unclear exactly how much municipalities pay to publish notices. For these reasons, the league continues to caution that the league survey sample data related to print legal advertising costs is not intended to, and should not be used to draw conclusions applicable statewide or even to the majority of municipalities.”

Darcy spoke to LocalSource about the survey.
“We asked municipalities to let us know how much they spend on their legal advertising and costs,” Darcy said in a phone call. “147 municipalities responded.”

According to Darcy, mostly smaller municipalities responded to the survey.
“This skewed the results, and the results were not really helpful about whether it was a cost driver,” Darcy said. “NJLM does not publish this info because we believe it is a small sample that is skewed to the experience of smaller municipalities. As such, it should not be used to draw statewide inferences.”

Darcy said that although the NJLM never published the numbers, people still got wind of it, including Christie.

“Governor Christie’s office and some in the media knew we had numbers and they asked for them,” he said. “The NJLM warned them that they were not indicative of the experience of municipalities. When we handed them out to the state and media, they understood this.”

Darcy said that although the caveat was disseminated by the media, some have been talking about the numbers without the caveat.

“They are using that to bolster their argument and that bothers us,” Darcy said. “They are drawing false conclusions, and that bothers us. Reporters and editors are not completely disclosing that information that the survey is not really accurate, and that really upset me.”

According to Darcy, Christie disclosed how he came up with the alleged cost to the state’s municipalities of $80 million.

“The governor disclosed clearly how he came to those numbers,” Darcy said. “He has a methodology. I think people can draw their own conclusions.”

George White, Executive Director of the New Jersey Press Association, spoke of the NJPA’s survey regarding cost of public notices to municipalities.

“The NJPA surveyed members back in 2010 when a simpler, though similar, bill was moving through the legislature,” White told LocalSource in an email. “At that time, the total for all public notice spending statewide was $20 million. So since the legislature statutorily controls the rates that may be charged for these ads, and has kept those rates stagnant since 1983, we told legislative leadership last month we expected that number to still be in the ballpark and would undertake a new survey to obtain data for all of 2016 — which is very close to complete.”

White said that although the annual amount of public notice spending may well be higher than $20 million due to a bump to the number of foreclosures occurring in the state, foreclosure ads are not paid for by governments with taxpayer dollars, nor are they paid for by the parties being foreclosed upon.

“These ads are paid for by the entities initiating the proceedings,” White said.
White noted that although he has not seen NJLM’s latest results, efforts by both the the NJPA and the NJLM to gather data would be helpful.

“The dual effort of both organizations to gather data can only be helpful to inform future discussions,” White said. “The aim for all is good public policy.
Policies and procedures around governments’ responsibility to provide required public notifications is a complex public policy matter. Since the bills were held from full votes in December, we have been gathering the new New Jersey data from newspaper media and input from other states to help inform the discussions expected to occur moving forward.”

Darcy said that although the NJPA has access to numbers, the methodology in gathering these numbers may not be as clear.
“Their methodology for assembling the numbers is more opaque,” Darcy said of the NJPA.

LocalSource reached out to several municipalities in Union County in order to collect feedback and data on the cost of publishing public notice ads.

Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson told LocalSource that the borough spent in 2016 a total of $7,892.28 to publish public notice ads in both the Union County LocalSource and the Star Ledger. In 2015, a total of $6,628.84 for both papers was spent.

Roselle Business Administrator, Dave Brown, told LocalSource that in 2016, the borough spent approximately $6,098 on public notices. Also noted was that the amount was subject to change, depending on the number of ordinances adopted, as well as other public notices that must be published per state statute.

According to John Laezza, business administrator for the Township of Clark, the township spends approximately $5,000 to $ 8,000 per year, depending on the amount of ordinances adopted during the year.

“This is only part of the problem,” Laezza told LocalSource in an email. “As an example, your newspaper is a weekly and your advertising notice requirements have a one-week-in-advance criteria to send in an advertisement for printing. This stretches the time period to meet state guidelines for time period for notification and causes undue delay. Although I am a very transparent administrator, I believe that the social media available to the public is more transparent than the newspaper, so put me in the support line of the governor.”
Cranford Mayor Tom Hannen said he was in support of public notice advertising in newspapers.

“We will continue to support the concept of advertising official business in newspapers,” Hannen told LocalSource in an email.
According to Darcy, the NJLM is interested in options that benefit municipalities.

“We’re always interested in giving municipalities new options to achieve new goals,” Darcy said. “We support the idea of the legislation for that purpose. The NJPA says that maybe we should reduce the cost of notices, and that’s a great point. There’s certainly some cost savings in that idea.”

Darcy acknowledges that a huge part of the debate over the newspaper bill is the impact such legislation would have on print media.

“Part of the debate is that it could be a death knell for print media,” Darcy said. “The NJLM does not want to comment on that part of the issue. The league does support the concept of finding new innovative ways to allow municipalities to comply with the requirement to communicate legal ads. And the league would be interested in reviewing any proposals that might save on costs to post, publish or otherwise communicate those ads.”