Carteret County commissioners have decided, without any public discussion, to join 12 other counties in a local bill, H.B. 51, that will allow the county to post all public notices on its website in lieu of publishing them in the newspaper as now required under state statutes. This is tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen house.
N.C. Representative Pat McElraft, (R), Carteret County’s legislative representative, has refused to support the county’s effort. To bypass Representative McElraft the county has asked Howard Penny, Harnett County representative, to add Carteret to the list of eastern counties on the bill. Coincidentally, Carteret’s county manager previously worked in the Harnett County government before taking his job here.
This effort to move public notices from required third party distribution, in this case newspapers, is being pushed on the premise that it is more cost effective since newspapers charge to run public notices. But the argument of cost is minimal. Last year the county spent approximately $21,700 in advertising, some of it being federal CARES Act money to promote COVID-19 health standards. When compared to the county’s $126 million budget this expenditure amounts to just under .02% of the county budget.
There is a reason and justification for this cost. Unlike the county’s proposal of using a passive website for public notices, newspapers work in a competitive media environment proactively seeking out readers. Each week the News-Times prints and distributes 13,700 papers, enticing readers with fresh news and opinion about the county. In addition to the print publication, the newspaper’s website, www.carolinacoastonline.com, garnered over 8.4 million total visitors last year, averaging 23,048 visitors/readers daily. And the paper also promotes its website and print products via social media with over 30,000 followers. All of this comes at a cost, which is why newspapers charge for public notices, which they attest to with an affidavit.
We question how many visitors the county’s website received last year. Despite the fact they have yet to provide that number we are confident it doesn’t come anywhere close.
The unique value of newspapers, with paid circulation, is that they are actively seeking to notify readers whereas the county’s proposal is a passive endeavor making it incumbent upon the community to seek out the information.
Another quandary with the county’s proposal is that anyone seeking county information will require an internet connection, computers and compatible software to search the county’s website. And regarding government websites, they are independent, therefore lacking conformity, are cumbersome and never user friendly as can be seen in comparing any two county websites or as the public experienced signing up for Obamacare. That is of course assuming access to a computer and internet to do so.
The legislature has established the current public notices statutes to assure the public’s ability to know what local government is doing and therefore generate trust in the process. Once the county governments take control of the distribution, like Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon, the public will lose that confidence.
The county commissioners and the other counties involved in this legislation “To Publish Public Notices Electronically on the County-Maintained Web Site” should review the experience of the residents in Morehead City who discovered, at the last minute in the summer of 2011, that they would soon enjoy the “sweet” smell of sulfur coming from a smelter planned for the Morehead City Port.
Because of a legal notice, required just weeks before approval by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Morehead City residents discovered this plan in time to raise a “stink of their own,” stopping the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) from allowing the construction of the smelting facility. The public protest was so overwhelming that Beverly Perdue, N.C. Governor at the time, came to Morehead City to publicly apologize for the obvious duplicitous actions of the DOT, the State Port, and even DENR.
DENR representatives noted that they had severe doubts about the smelter’s location considering the number of nearby businesses, the Morehead City Yacht Basin and condominiums. But because there were no complaints forthcoming when the proposal was first quietly announced in Raleigh, they had no other choice than to approve its construction.
Had it not been for state statutes requiring one last effort to actively notify nearby businesses and residents, Morehead City would be far more odiferous today and numerous businesses would be suffering physically and fiscally.
This example is proof that government cannot always be trusted. But if the two house bills moving public notices to county websites passes, then county governments will have TOTAL CONTROL on the message and delivery just like the internet behemoths Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon.
North Carolina taxpayers and residents deserve to know what their government is doing. This effort to go around state statutes, and in the case of Carteret County, to go around the county’s legislator on the spurious excuse that it will save money, is farcical. What is really at play is a plan to keep prying eyes away and to keep the public in the dark.