County governments push to control public access


Public notices which promote the ‘Public’s Right to Know’ are once again under attack by county commissioners and certain county managers.

In the recent weeks, N.C. Senator Mike Lazzara, representing Onslow County, introduced S. B. 200, which authorizes the county’s website to be used as an alternative for dissemination and distribution of all public notices for the county and any municipality within the county’s jurisdiction. Current state statutes require that state, county, municipal governments and certain agencies must publish public notices in newspapers of general circulation within the county or region affected by the public notice.

Sen. Lazzara’s efforts were requested by the county manager, Sharon Russell, without any public input or vote by the county board of commissioners. When quizzed about the action, one county board member said he knew nothing about it and deferred any questions to the county manager.

Although the legislation does not prohibit the use of a third party distribution, comments made in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee indicate that the intent is to move the publishing of public notices to county websites in an effort to “save money.”  In the case where notices are required to be published by municipalities and other agencies, this will provide a revenue source for the county.

The focus on cost and revenue, a concern that is always used in the debate over public notices, is a canard, a false argument designed to draw attention away from the real issues of government transparency and accountability.

The use of a third party for dissemination of public notices, currently privately owned newspapers, as required by state statute, is intentional. It holds the government agency accountable for making a reasonable effort to notify the public. It further holds the third party accountable in the cases of failure to fulfill the publication of the notice once it is submitted, thereby giving the public recourse.

If the county is the publisher, the county benefits from sovereign immunity, which is to say there is no public recourse if it fails to publish a notice. As the saying goes, “you can’t sue city hall,” but in this case it’s “you can’t sue the county seat.”

By relegating public notices to the county website, this legislation closes the communications circle to benefit government. Not only is government creating the message, one that may not be beneficial to those in authority, S.B.200 gives government total control on how it is disseminated.

Take for example a notification that a county or municipal water system failed inspection. The governing body must publish this fact, but if the governing body has control of the dissemination, the notice may in fact be published, but it may not be highly or actively distributed.

A perfect example that had a direct impact on Morehead City and the county, were the efforts in 2011, of the N.C. Department of Commerce and the State Ports Authority to facilitate a sulfur smelting plant at the Morehead City Port, right next door to the Morehead City Yacht Basin.

Because the proposed location was on state property, and because the central offices for that facility were located in Raleigh, public notice of the pending project was disseminated through the N.C. State Clearing House environmental bulletins. No public notices were provided for the community’s edification or comment.

Unfortunately for the port and the tenant seeking the permit, but fortunately for the city and the county, Jett Matthews, developer and manager of the yacht basin, bothered to read a notice sent to adjoining property owners, a final requirement for permit approval. 

His reaction, supported by an outpouring of community complaints, resulted in the project, that had been underway for almost a year and was only weeks away from final approval, being halted. The publicity surrounding this underhanded attempt by state government agencies was so embarrassing that then-Governor Beverly Perdue publicly apologized at a press conference conducted in one of the port’s warehouses.

This story is a perfect example of the purpose and benefits of requiring public notices to be published in an organ that is not directed or controlled by the very agencies required to provide public disclosure.

The final canard offered for the purpose of moving public notices to government websites is the decline in newspaper readership. There is no question that newspapers are struggling with changing reader habits and that the publishing industry is facing financial headwinds, but like the Carteret County News-Times and its sister publication the Swansboro Tideland News, local newspapers are embracing new delivery systems, particularly the internet. 

This new service does not negate the value of print. It instead enhances and expands accessibility for readers interested in the local community. The umbrella website CarolinaCoastOnline, where readers have access to both the News-Times and the Tideland News, last year recorded 4.4 million visitors or readers, of which 1.9 million were unique or one-time visitors and the remainder, 2.5 million, were return visitors.

Those numbers, not including the print subscribers, for last year alone, are more readers reached in one year than a total for all readers of the paper combined over the 79-year history of this family-owned community newspaper.

For comparison’s sake, the Onslow County website recorded just 75,000 readers or visitors last year.

The reason for this differential is obvious. The public is not in the habit of reading government websites or bulletins, as was seen with the 2011 Morehead City debacle. Newspapers on the other hand, aggressively seek readers and want transparency, something that often times government seeks to avoid.

Onslow County’s request is being presented as a local bill, but at its first senatorial hearing before the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dan Britt added Robeson County to the bill, which is a clear indication that other similar efforts are waiting. This bill is a mirror image of a bill attempted but defeated in the N.C. House of Representatives in 2021.

In 2017 a similar local bill that was created for Guilford County passed at the behest of Republican Senator Trudy Wade, who had angst with the editorial policy of the county’s largest newspaper, the Greensboro News & Record. Just last week S.B 283 was introduced to rescind the action because it is considered an abject failure; Guilford County residents seven years later still do not read the county’s website and/or they don’t trust the source.

This most recent effort on the part of the Onslow County manager, and by extension the county commissioners, is a lousy way to govern, without seeking public notice or participation. More importantly, it is a disservice to the public, designed to avoid public transparency and accessibility, which damages the credibility of the government.