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Opinion: Keeping the public informed

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Barney Hill is about as involved as a person can be in local government without running for election – and possibly more involved than many who do hold office.

Hill – a prolific writer of letters to the editor who, I’ve been informed, has previously been referred to in this newspaper as a “self-proclaimed political gadfly” – regularly attends meetings of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners and Thomasville City Council. He has meeting agendas printed out in advance.

Hill acknowledges he is an “atypical” resident and taxpayer. So he has mixed feelings about a bill introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly that would give local governments the option of posting legally required public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers, as currently required by law.

First, Hill doesn’t use the internet. He calls himself “tech-illiterate” and says he often takes items such as notices on rezoning requests out of the newspaper and carries them in a folder so he can reference them when needed. On the other hand, Hill figures that, because he faithfully gets those agendas, he would still know in advance about important issues coming up at meetings and, well, the governments could save some money.

“I don’t like to see any avenue closed off, but … it’s like a government subsidy for newspapers,” he said.

On this topic, Hill and I agree on a few points and disagree on at least one big one. Let’s take that one first.

Paying to run legally required notices is not a government subsidy for newspapers (although this is an argument used by people who want to take them out). Yes, charging for space is part of our business model. Making money is important to a business when its employees have things like rent or a mortgage to cover, electric and water bills to pay, hungry mouths to feed. I wish – I really do – that we could give away all the work we do. Before running that idea up the flagpole to see if my corporate bosses salute, however, I want assurances from Food Lion that I can have my groceries for free, from the city of Lexington that my electric bill balance will always be zero, and from any of our local auto dealers (I’m not choosy) that I can henceforth drive off in a car without paying.

And there’s a reason governments are required to run those notices in newspapers: We are the most widely used source of information in any community we serve. Now, people will say this argument is outdated because newspapers don’t have the circulation they once had and because the internet makes information more easily accessible in this, our digital age.

It’s true that newspaper circulation has fallen. So who are the people still getting this archaic, paper product? A lot of them are the older residents in our communities. While a lot of our elders are on the internet, some may use it just to get emailed photos of the grandkids. Others, like Hill, may not be online at all. Are they somehow less deserving of public notice when something important is being considered in their community – where they’ve lived the longest and paid the most taxes? I don’t think so. And I don’t believe they would quickly adapt and find other ways to get that information, nor should they have to.

And besides those of us who are in the business of gathering information and making it accessible to the community, who frequents a government website? Consider this, from the N.C. Press Association:

“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 site.”

Potentially more troubling, the Press Association asks, “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 (this) bill is signed into law?”

A compromise bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Cathy Dunn of Davidson County, has been filed that would keep public notices in newspapers and on newspaper websites – where the most people will be able to see them – and save taxpayer dollars. If you support open government, call legislators and tell them you support that bill.

It’s important to make sure public information stays easily accessible to the public.

After all, we’re not all Barney Hill.

Scott Jenkins is executive editor of The Dispatch.