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Legislators again looking to operate in the dark

Like a bad penny, legislation to hide public notices from the public is back in 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 include the Roanoke-Chowan area – 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.

Public notices catalog government actions in cases of competitive bidding, rezonings, budget hearings, auctions, property transfers, delinquent tax notices, street name changes and more. They alert the public to disruptive land-use changes for things like sewer 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.

Instead of eroding the public’s right to know, county commissioners and city council members should be providing as much information as possible to all their constituents, including the many who have no internet access or poor service.

Meanwhile, newspapers have proved to be a lifeline of community news vital to the public during the pandemic. Instead of killing the messengers, counties and cities should continue running legal notices in newspapers and help maintain this vital line of communication to the local community.

Traffic on county websites is infinitesimally small compared to newspaper websites and print circulation. A recent study done by the North Carolina Press Association showed newspaper websites drew 4-5 times as much traffic as county websites. Keep in mind, too, that at no extra cost and without being forced to by law, newspapers are already 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.

And the print versions of newspapers containing these important legal notices are necessary for those living where access to the internet is either non-existent or extremely limited.

These notices do not subsidize the operation of small town newspapers. They keep the public informed. Removing the newspaper publication cost would scarcely be noticed on local government budget ledgers — except to the extent it may reduce their leverage to collect unpaid taxes, making the repeal of the public notices pound foolish.

Newspapers are an independent third party responsible for printing and archiving a permanent record of these public notices – who would be held accountable if these notices were only required to post on a government run website?

The attempts at retribution against local newspapers are a Bad Idea. Contact your local legislator and county commissioners and tell them to keep the fox out of the henhouse. Tell them to keep public notices in newspapers so that the public can see them.

– The North Carolina Press Association