Like a bad penny, Legislation to hide public notices from the public is back in the N.C. General Assembly.
House members have filed separate bills that would allow 14 counties in the Piedmont and mountains and 12 counties in Eastern North Carolina to run public notices on their websites instead of in newspapers. This has been a bad idea over the past 10 years and it is arguably a worse idea today when a public health crisis calls for greater transparency, not less, and when the virtual learning experience in public schools has exposed huge gaps and inequities in internet access.
Public notices alert the public to pending government actions on rezoning requests, budget hearings, tax increases, auctions, property transfers, delinquent taxes, foreclosures, street name changes and more. They alert the public to disruptive land-use changes for things like sewage treatment plants, asphalt plants and garbage incinerators. They tell the public in advance about proposals for traffic-clogging high-density developments and plans for wider roads or new roads.
Although they cost local government a small amount of money, public notices generate revenue by compelling the collection of past-due taxes. Indeed, the threat of having their names published in the local newspaper (and on its website) for nonpayment incentivizes the timely payment of property taxes by an incalculable amount.
Current law has served the public interest well by ensuring that public notices reach the largest possible cross-section of the community. The death of newspapers has been predicted and exaggerated since the invention of the telegraph machine, radio and television. While the internet has reduced dissemination of news via a printed product, newspapers — including this one — have almost universally added 24-7 web-based products that in most cases reach a larger audience than those news companies did before websites proliferated. The poorly understood secret is that we have more readers than we had 10 years ago, not fewer.
Traffic on county websites is negligible compared to newspaper websites and print circulation. A recent study by the North Carolina Press Association showed newspaper websites drew 4-5 times the traffic county websites did. Keep in mind, too, that at no extra cost and without being forced to by law newspapers are voluntarily posting public notices on line and uploading them to a central statewide website — www.ncnotices.com — where the public can read notices from around the state for free.
The survey the NCPA commissioned in December found that:
● 6.6 million North Carolina adults read a newspaper product every month for information about their local community.
● 72 percent of adults read public notices in local print or digital newspapers.
● 68 percent believe governments should be required to publish notices in a newspaper as a service to the community.
● 86 percent cite local newspapers as their “most trusted” source for public notices vs. government websites.
The survey broadly undergirds what most people would regard as intuitive fact: The public relies on newspapers more often than any other source of information.
To their credit, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners and our five towns have not been in the forefront of those demanding this harmful change in state law. Henderson County is not included in either of the two “pilot” bills scheduled for a House committee vote this week.
In fact, during a meeting in December, commissioners shot down a suggestion from newly elected Chair Bill Lapsley that the board impose a time limit on constituents making public comments.
Sponsors filed the proposals as “local” bills as a thinly-veiled way to avoid the threat of a gubernatorial veto. Local bills are exempt from an executive branch strike-down. Two separate “local” bills covering the same topic and applying to 26 counties clearly violates the spirit of what local bills are intended to address and if they were to be combined they would violate the letter of the law, too. Local bills may apply to no more than 20 counties. Exempting one quarter of the state’s counties from the public notice law pokes more than a camel’s nose under the tent; it muscles an outsized head and forelegs under the canvas and threatens to wreck the structure completely.
Legislators on either side of the aisle ought to recognize this threat for what it is: An attempt by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and its allies in the state House to save counties a tiny amount of money while denying homeowners, taxpayers and voters in those counties the right to know.