One of the principal missions of a local newspaper is to expose questionable conduct among elected officials, thus creating a community where everyone—from the average citizen to those in power—are held equally accountable for their actions.
On Monday, July 3, an employee of Fayette Clerk of Superior Court Sheila Studdard called the bookkeeper at Fayette Newspapers to inform the newspaper that the legal notices will now be accepted at the Fayette County Courthouse and be then sent to Fayette Newspapers.
A legal notice or public notice, is a requirement of law that the public be informed through the legal organ newspaper of a variety of activities: individual or public entity name changes, business formation, foreclosure on real estate, reports and notices from local governments, and for a variety of other legal purposes. Fayette Newspapers is the legal organ of Fayette County, which means our newspaper is responsible for publishing and preserving the public notice advertisements.
Studdard’s sudden decision to change the location of where people go to put their legal notices in the paper stemmed from what she called a change in Georgia Code Title 9, Chapter 11, Article 2, or O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4. The code, which has not been updated since last year, does not grant Studdard the right to collect legal notices under the current circumstances.
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson said O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4 “pertains only to service of a lawsuit where a defendant cannot be located.” The code indeed states that it applies only when the defendant “resides outside the state, or has departed from the state, or cannot, after due diligence, be found within the state, or conceals himself or herself to avoid the service of the summons.”
Studdard was informed of this information, via email, and agreed to meet at the Fayette Newspapers office to “work through this issue” and “find a resolution.” The date agreed upon was Monday, July 24 at 2 p.m. However, when I looked for her at the courthouse Monday, roughly an hour after the meeting was supposed to take place at our office, I was informed Studdard was on vacation and had assumed the meeting was the following day.
On Tuesday, Studdard asked via email—her most consistant medium of response—if she should have legal counsel at the meeting. I responded that she may bring legal counsel, but once she confirmed that I would be interviewing her on the record for a story in the newspaper, Studdard rescinded her agreement to meet at our office, preferring a meeting to speak off-the-record, and said to Fayette Newspapers publisher, Geneva Weaver, that she would “prefer any meeting to take place at my office or a place that perhaps is neutral to both of us.” That meeting is scheduled take place Wednesday at 11 a.m.
To date, there is no evidence explaining why Studdard made the decision to accept legals at the courthouse. However, a few days prior to Studdard’s employee making the call to our bookkeeper on July 3, Fayette Newspapers made the decision that they would discontinue James Studdard’s weekly column, for we believed some of the language he used and opinions he expressed in his coulmns were no longer acceptable in our publication. James Studdard is Sheila Studdard’s father-in-law.
Sheila has been the Fayette County Clerk of Courts since 2000, but cited a code that doesn’t allow her the discretion to do what she is currently attempting to do. The fees for advertising are initially paid to the clerk only in the case of ads to serve a lawsuit on a defendant who cannot be located.
“I do not know of any other basis in the law for a clerk of court to insist that legal organ newspaper ads be paid initially to the clerk, and not to the newspaper,” Hudson said.
The decision by Sheila to have advertisers deliver the ads and fee payments first to her is an inconvenience to customers, and also adds an unnecessary administrative burden to the work of the clerk’s office, which after all is supported by the taxpayers.
If you have a legal notice you would like to include in the newspaper, Fayette Newspapers, the legal organ of Fayette County, is located at 210 Jeff Davis Place, and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5 pm.