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Editorial: Local governments ill-equipped to keep the public informed

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Some North Carolina lawmakers want local governments to compete with newspapers and sell legal advertising, making important information more difficult to find.

Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, introduced a bill that would not only exempt city and county governments from statutory requirements for publishing notices of special meetings and land transfers, but would even allow counties to charge fees for posting private legal notices on their websites.

The push to take public notices out of newspapers is nothing new, but getting county government in the publishing business adds a bizarre wrinkle to legislators’ feud with the free and independent press. Under Wade’s Senate Bill 343 and its cross-filed counterpart, House Bill 432, counties would be able to charge law firms a fee to post legal notices online.

Wade contends state laws requiring legal notices to be published in local newspapers amount to government subsidies for the press. That cynical view fails to take into account that newspapers reach far more people than the government websites she hails as the alternative.

Through public records requests, the North Carolina Press Association has confirmed that city and county websites receive a fraction of newspaper sites’ daily traffic. In an average month, The Wilson Times and WilsonTimes.com reach 13.4 times more people than the Wilson County government website and 14.3 times more people than the city of Wilson’s website.

The disparities are even more stark in small, rural communities — in Swain County, the county government site saw 6,134 page views compared to 271,102 for The Smoky Mountain Times. The county could see a 4,400 percent boost in traffic and still wouldn’t match the local newspaper’s website.

In Pitt, Clay, Randolph, Columbus and Cherokee counties, local officials couldn’t even figure out how to check the number of website visitors, a basic information technology function. And these are the folks Senator Wade wants to put in charge of online legal notices.

Some legislators accuse us of economic self-interest, but simple arithmetic shows it’s chiefly an open government issue. Posting important legal information on websites that very few people visit has the practical effect of hiding it from the public.

When cities and counties are required to publish notice of a controversial land deal or a special meeting where an unpopular vote is planned, what’s to stop them from burying the information on a hard-to-find page on their websites if Wade’s bill is signed into law?

Those conflicts of interest are magnified when counties are given permission to sell online legal advertising to firms handling foreclosures and estate matters. Will well-connected lawyers who do business with the county receive preferential treatment?

Newspapers are still the closest thing we have to a community bulletin board. City and county websites simply can’t compete with the press when it comes to reaching members of the public in their communities. They don’t have the audience, and barging into the publishing business isn’t a proper role for government in the first place.