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Editorial: Horner backs bill to maintain public notices

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State Sen. Rick Horner wants to ensure public legal notices — important announcements of special meetings, land transfers, contract bids and other government actions — are posted where North Carolinians can find them.

Horner, R-Wilson, has signed on as a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 435, which was introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico.

SB 435 seeks to enact a compromise between cities and counties who want to reduce the expense of publishing notices in newspapers and open-government advocates who warn that letting municipalities post notices on the their own websites effectively hides them from the public.

The bill requires newspapers qualified to publish legal notices to post them online at no cost in addition to publishing them in print — a step many papers including The Wilson Times already take. It also establishes a 15 percent discount for local governments that publish the same notice on recurring days.

These provisions ensure that public notices will be read by the widest possible audience and offer a cost savings to cities and counties. SB 435 mirrors successful legislation adopted in Florida that’s keeping Sunshine State government actions in the sunlight.

Horner’s bill is the citizen-friendly alternative to Senate Bill 343 and House Bill 432, pieces of anti-transparency legislation that would put local governments in charge of posting their own notices online.

Switching from a system of print and online publication to online-only availability means folks without home internet access will be left in the dark. And even the most tech-savvy among us are a lot less likely to see public notices on a town or county website.

We’re glad government agencies are interacting with residents online, but their sites are largely static, repositories of rules and advisory information that rarely changes. Newspapers have vibrant, dynamic websites updated throughout the day with local stories. Which are you more likely to visit?

Since city and county web traffic data is public record, we know that The Wilson Times reaches 13.4 times more people than the Wilson County government’s site and 14.3 times more people than the city of Wilson’s. If either anti-transparency bill passes, you’re a whole lot less likely to encounter a public notice. That’s not a point to be argued; it’s a statistical fact.

City and county government lobbyists say municipalities just want to save money. Well, cutting corners and burying public notices on little-used websites would accomplish that, but at an incalculable civic cost — your right to know what local leaders are doing.

SB 435 holds newspapers accountable for making sure public notices are available online, free of charge, on local news sites where they’ll be more widely read. It also acknowledges governments’ financial concerns and provides a discount for second-run public notice advertising. The Wilson Times and the North Carolina Press Association support this common-sense compromise.

We applaud Senator Horner for sponsoring a bill that’s in his constituents’ best interest and working to make sure all North Carolinians will continue to have access to public notices through their local papers.