With Gov. Roy Cooper on record against the change, efforts to move legal and public notices out of newspapers are taking a different approach this year to skirt a potential veto. House Republicans have filed two separate bills so far this session that would allow required notices to be posted on county government websites instead of published in the local newspaper. House Bill 35, sponsored by Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, would apply to 14 counties that stretch from Swain in the west to Currituck on the coast. House Bill 51, sponsored by Rep. Howard Penny, R-Harnett, would apply to a dozen counties in Eastern North Carolina.
By clustering counties in separate bills, the proposals have been filed as local bills, which mean Cooper can’t veto them. The N.C. Press Association, which has fought the change for years, is calling foul. “This is not a ‘local’ bill, but is a trojan horse for a larger statewide campaign,” said executive director Phil Lucey, who represents the state’s newspapers. “It does not meet the spirit of a ‘local’ bill and a play run only to avoid the veto of the governor. It’s bad policy, that’s why it has been vetoed in the past when run through the proper channels and the public’s right to know shouldn’t suffer at these attempts to misuse the process.” As it has in previous years, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners has made the shift in public notices one of its 40 legislative goals. “There is broad support among our members to give counties more options to reach their communities, that is why the spirit of the goal is to offer North Carolina’s 100 counties flexibility to communicate, including the use of local newspapers,” association spokeswoman Lacy Pate said in an email. The bills would allow counties to continue to use newspaper ads if they choose to.
So far, the local bill approach only worked to change legal notice requirements for Guilford County. When that was originally part of a non-local bill, Cooper vetoed, calling it legislation “that enacts retribution on the media.” This year’s bills would affect two types of notice requirements. Local governments that currently have to buy ads in newspapers to notify residents about public hearings and other matters would be allowed to simply put the announcement on their own website. But the bill also addresses legal notices that attorneys are required to provide in estate settlements and other matters. Instead of paying newspapers to run the ads, attorneys could instead pay county government to put the notice on their website — essentially taking a revenue stream from newspapers, which argue that the government websites will garner fewer eyeballs and leave people uninformed. “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,” Lucey said. Both HB 35 and HB 51 will make their first committee stop in the House Judiciary IV Committee, where the vice-chairman, Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawba, is one of the bills’ sponsors.
COLIN CAMPBELL, THE INSIDER