Every year or two some legislators in the state General Assembly file bills that would make it more difficult for citizens to find legal notices. Now three state senators have introduced Senate Bill 343, which would abolish a decades old law requiring legal notices to be published in local newspapers and let government entities post them on their websites. In addition, attorneys would not be required to publish legal notices as long as they paid county government to post the legal notice on the county website.
SB 343 sponsor Sen. Trudy Wade stated that the legislation would increase public access to legal notices and the money saved by local governments would be used to provide local salary supplements for schoolteachers. These reasons are misleading.
The legislation would not increase access to legal notices; it would decrease access. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians do not have Internet access in their homes. The only way they have access to legal notices is through printed newspapers. Visitation to newspaper websites, which already print legal notices online, is much greater than visitation to county government websites.
On government websites, people search for a specific item. With newspapers, people tend to scan the entire paper and see items they otherwise would not have seen. A person scanning the legal notices for foreclosures would have a good chance of coming across a legal notice regarding a public hearing.
The amount counties would save from publishing their own legal notices would provide only a pittance of a local supplement to teachers. Out of Transylvania County’s roughly $41 million budget for fiscal year 2011-2012, the county budgeted $17,411 for publishing legal notices and required advertisements. And Wade has been silent on the legislation giving only 50 percent of county receipts to teachers. Thus, local teachers would see only about a $30 increase in their local supplement.
Many government officials prefer to avoid controversy, and they attempt to do that by hiding information. Laws are often created behind closed doors and then voted upon quickly without any substantive debate. This was done with House Bill 2 last year in North Carolina and it was partly done in Washington with the American Health Care Act (AHCA).
Even if information on government websites in not intentionally hidden, it can be difficult to find. In fact, a few years ago when the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) planned to reclassify Boylston Creek as trout waters, most residents were unaware of the plan because the state does not have to post such public hearings in newspapers. Though the hearing was legally posted on the NCDENR website, it went unnoticed for several reasons. To get that information, residents would have needed a reason to suspect a public hearing on reclassifying Boylston Creek and correctly guess which agency would post the notice. If they correctly guessed DENR, they would have found no listing of public hearings on the home page. By luck, they would have needed to select the N.C. Division of Water Quality, find the one link to public hearings and then scroll down to find the appropriate public hearing.
This is not government by transparency. It is government by obfuscation.
Newspapers, on the other hand, promote transparency. Newspapers make a special effort to inform people about such meetings and hearings. Information about these meetings is often in a “box” with the text in large type. Meetings are referenced in other stories. The location of legal notices is listed on the front page. Newspapers encourage attendance at public hearings and meetings. Legal notices in newspapers help provide transparency.
A few years ago, many residents learned about a proposed biomass plant in Penrose by reading this paper’s legal notices. And several readers learned about tonight’s public hearing on a proposed incentive grant to Le Parc LLC, which is “contemplating the development of a resort” on the site of the former Glen Cannon Golf Club, in legal notice published in this paper on March 16.
Notification of public hearings, budget ordinances, development agreements and other actions taken by government should be as widely and easily accessible as possible. Newspapers, by design and in practice, provide more and easier accessibility to this information than do government websites. That is why SB 343 should be defeated.