Newspaper legal notices can be dull stuff, but they’re attracting a lot of interest from state lawmakers. Bills that would change public notice laws were introduced in 21 states this year. Almost all failed to pass, but North Carolina’s legislature, as is its wont to do these days, may become the exception in its approval of ill-conceived legislation.
Lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill this week that will remove the requirement that municipal and county governments publish their legal notices in newspapers. Instead, the local government would be allowed to post the notices only on their websites, saving taxpayers the cost of paying for legal ads. The local governments could also charge private attorneys who want to post legal notices on the government websites and the revenue from those ads would go toward teacher-pay supplements.
The proposed change has surface appeal. Communication is increasingly digital and newspapers’ print circulation is declining. Why keep paying for ink on paper? And newspapers that oppose the change have a financial stake in the status quo. But those realities don’t mean that the transfer of public notices to government sites would be healthy for democracy or that newspapers’ objections are hollow.
Indeed, if anything is hollow, it’s the claims of those sponsoring the bills. Here in North Carolina it’s state Sen. Trudy Wade, a Greensboro Republican. She is so eager to hit back at newspapers that hold her accountable that she’s sponsored not only Senate Bill 343 to remove government legal notices from newspapers, but a second measure to require that newspaper carriers who work part-time as subcontractors be given costly benefits usually reserved for full-time employees.
Wade and most others who push these bills aren’t interested in saving local governments money. The cost of buying the legal ads is a minuscule share of government budgets. What they’re interested in is punishing newspapers and evading what newspapers seek to foster – government accountability and transparency.
If notices for such things as public hearings, zoning changes and requests for bids on government contracts are relegated to government websites, the information will be posted to a far smaller audience and sometimes not posted at all. When Illinois took up this issue, a group called the Citizen Advocacy Center examined 750 local government websites to see how well they handled legally required notices. Only 73 percent of governments complied with posting meeting notices, 57 percent complied with posting an agenda and a mere 48 percent complied with posting approved meeting minutes.
To improve that performance, local governments might have to invest more in people and technology than they’re spending on newspaper ads. It’s also noteworthy that many North Carolinians still do not have access to the internet. In 2013, a Federal Communications Commission report ranked North Carolina last in the nation for the number of homes with an internet subscription.
With printed legal notices in newspapers, readers are much more likely to come upon the notice than they are on a government website. Nonetheless, newspapers also support House Bill 472 that would require newspapers to publish the legal ads on their websites and on a statewide notices website run by the N.C. Press Association. While print circulation has declined, the combined print and online audience for newspapers is larger than ever.
Finally, legal ads sometimes more than pay for themselves, either by heading off a costly governmental controversy by drawing public attention early or bringing in cash. This year, for instance, Moore County paid its local paper, The Pilot, $8,000 to meet a legal requirement to publish the names of delinquent taxpayers who collectively owed $1.37 million. After the ad, Moore County collected $821,000 of the outstanding debt. Moore County Tax Administrator Gary Briggs said exposure in a newspaper gets the attention of debtors and those who know them. “It still turns out to be an effective mechanism,” he said.
Exposure is at the center of the debate over changing legal notices. Lawmakers who push for the change often don’t care that government actions will be less apparent and they hope that reducing revenue to newspapers will reduce the scrutiny of themselves. It’s important that neither happen. The public has the right to know.