Editorial: Government notices need to remain public

Posted

German poet and writer Georg Buchner may have lived 200 years ago but his words still ring true today, "Government must be a transparent garment which tightly clings to the people's body."

In addition to holding open meetings and workshops, our local, state and federal governments are required to place public notices in newspapers like The Herald to inform citizens to make their opinions on proposals or other items before a rule or law is made.

To be open and honest, The Herald does charge the governmental bodies to run these advertisements in the classified section. Unlike what opponents feel about this, it isn't a government subsidy. It is paying for the space we allot for the public notice because we are like any other business with bills of our own and employees to pay.

The main reason why newspapers were chosen to run these public notices is because we are the most widely used source of information in the communities we serve. Yes, we have been humbled by the internet with more and more people getting their "news" from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. However, newspapers are still the desired format for our older citizens. They are now becoming "tech savvy" but still prefer reading the paper while drinking their morning coffee.

Because of this, it is logical to keep the public notices in the newspaper so citizens can keep the government in check.

This is not the thinking of some members of the General Assembly. A bill was introduced giving local governments the option of posting legally required public notices on their websites instead of publishing them in the paper, as now currently required by law.

One of the main reasons cited to change the law is cost. Lawmakers believe newspapers gouge the governments for running those ads and are living high on the hog with the money. This is not the case – newspapers have been tightening their belts across the country, not getting fat off these "government subsidies."
While saving a dollar or two of taxpayers' money is nice for the bottomline, the truth is that fewer people would see the public notices if they were only posted on local governments' websites.

Through a public records request, the North Carolina Press Association confirmed that city and county websites receive a fraction of a newspaper's daily traffic. The NCPA uses the Wilson Times as an example. The Wilson Times and its website reach 13.4 times more people than the Wilson County government website and 14.3 times more people than the city of Wilson's site.

The gap is probably even bigger in cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh.
Plus, the NCPA raises a potentially more troubling question – what if a city or county was faced with a controversial land deal or special meeting (like on coal ash) where an unpopular vote was planned? A city or county could bury the information on a hard-to-find page on its website to avoid the backlash.

Luckily for not only newspapers, but the general public as well, two compromise bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — have been introduced this month. The Senate Bill 435 was introduced by Sens. Cathy Dunn, Rick Horner and Norman Sanderson. It was also co-sponsored by Sen. Ronald Rabin, who represents Lee, Harnett and Johnston counties.

The bills would require the public notices to remain in the newspaper and on newspaper websites as well as save the taxpayers some money. If you agree in open government, we encourage you to reach out to Reps. Robert Reives II and John Sauls to ask them to support the bills.

We believe it is important for our governments to govern in the sunshine and keep public information easily accessible to the masses.