It was good to hear that area lawmakers appear to be backing off their initial support for House Bill 51, legislation that seeks to change where local governments in 12 area counties post notices of upcoming meetings, rezonings and other matters of public concern.
It was even better news to hear one of those lawmakers, state Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, definitively describe the proposed legislation as “a bad bill,” and declare “it’s not going anywhere” without significant change to its current language.
Hunter’s fellow co-sponsor on the initial bill, state Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, likewise expressed concerns about the legislation on Friday, agreeing it likely would have to be significantly altered from its current form.
At issue is language in the bill allowing counties and cities in the 12 counties, including Pasquotank, Perquimans, Chowan and Camden, to publish public notices on their government websites “in lieu of or in addition to” their current required publication in newspapers of general circulation in their county. As the bill now stands, local governments would be allowed to publish public notices on their own websites instead of in local newspapers, as they have been required to for decades.
Longtime proponents of this change like the N.C. Association of County Commissioners claim allowing counties and cities to post public notices on their own websites would save a lot of taxpayer money that now goes to newspaper companies.
They’ve also argued that with newspapers publishing fewer days and more consumers, particularly younger ones, choosing to get the vast majority of their news online, the requirement to publish public notices in newspapers is no longer an effective communication strategy. They apparently believe citizens would be just as informed about controversial rezonings, competitive bidding for government contracts, and government property transfers if the notices were posted on government websites.
Proponents of bills like HB 51 aren’t wrong about shifts in how people are consuming news. They’re dead wrong, however, about government websites being the place for citizens to stay informed about what their local government is up to.
One need look no further than the comparison of web traffic on The Daily Advance’s website to that on local government websites.
Pasquotank County’s website, for example, had around 678,000 page views in 2020 and around 188,000 unique page views last year. By comparison, The Daily Advance had almost 4.8 million page views in 2020 and around 776,000 unique page views.
In Camden County, there were even fewer page views, 270,521, and 67,440 unique page views. In Elizabeth City, city officials don’t even keep data on page views, so there’s not even any way to track how many people visit the city’s website.
Critics of the legislation correctly point out that adopting it would allow local governments to operate more easily in the dark. Like Hunter, North Carolina Press Association Executive Director Philip Lucey also calls the legislation a bad idea, noting it would force citizens to search for the notices on government websites.
“(Public notices) alert the public to disruptive land-use changes for things like sewer plants, asphalt plants and garbage incinerators,” Lucey told The Daily Advance’s Paul Nielsen. “They tell the public in advance about proposals for traffic-clogging high-density developments and plans for wider roads or new roads.”
Hunter and Goodwin said the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on House Bill 51 early next week. Hunter said he plans to push for the phrase “in lieu of or” to be changed to “and.” That way, he said, local governments would still be required to publish public notices in newspapers in addition to their websites.
“We are trying to get the bill fixed,” Hunter told Nielsen. “If it’s not right, the bill is supposed to be pulled. It’s a bad bill if you read it right.”
We couldn’t agree more.
— The Daily Advance