Counties once again looking to operate in the dark
By Philip M. Lucey
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 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.
Why are public notices important?
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.
What role do newspapers play?
Newspapers are a community forum. That role does not change with the manner in which you receive local news important to you.
• 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.
• Current law ensures that public notices reach the largest possible cross-section of the community. The death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated since the invention of the telegraph machine, radio and television. While the internet has reduced dissemination of news via a printed product, newspapers almost universally have added 24-7 web-based products that in many cases reach a larger audience than those news companies did before websites proliferated. 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.
The survey the NCPA commissioned in December 2020 found that:
- 6.6 million North Carolina adults read a newspaper product every month for information about their local community.
- 72% of adults read public notices in local print or digital newspapers.
- 68% believe governments should be required to publish notices in a newspaper as a service to the community.
- 86% 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 and it’s not even close.
What about access to these notices?
• According to many studies, fully 30% of North Carolinians either live where there is no internet service, they can’t afford it, or won’t read online even if available (most seniors).
• Rep. Warren thinks that everyone has a cellphone with capability to reach county websites, a position that is simply not supportable (there is a comparable group of seniors or those who can’t afford wireless or find themselves out of service range).
• Readers and viewers still look to newspapers to get community news that no other organization provides. So it’s a false echo for Rep. Warren and others to argue that it’s time now (when it wasn’t time 10 years ago when he voted against earlier legislation to kill public notice) to allow counties to pull notices because newspapers may publish less frequently today.
Would this save money for our counties?
The fact is legal notice advertising is a tiny fraction of the budget in every county.
It is an important check and balance service that newspapers have provided to local governments for decades, and yes they are paid for it. 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 profoundly foolish.
If our papers didn’t play this role, many vulnerable taxpayers would be left in the dark about meetings of local governments that their tax dollars pay for, as well as the decisions and taxes to which those meetings might lead. Finally, legal ads sometimes more than pay for themselves, either by heading off a costly governmental controversy by drawing public attention early or bringing in cash. For instance, Moore County paid its local paper, The Pilot, $8,000 to meet a legal requirement to publish the names of delinquent taxpayers who collectively owed $1.37 million. After the ad, Moore County collected $821,000 of the outstanding debt.
This is not about cost savings for the counties. This is about hiding the business of the people and an attempt to strike back at newspapers for doing their job. We are the public watchdogs and occasionally we report on news that is not favorable to elected officials. That role will never change. This is about accountability and transparency.
As described by former Republican lawyer House member Bonner Stiller, giving local governments the choice to suspend notice publication to the public in newspapers would “create havoc” for free press rights every time a newspaper criticized the government.
Limiting public notice to government websites is a bad idea, because as many as one-third of North Carolinians do not have internet access, can’t afford it, and would not visit government operated websites even if they had internet access. This bill would bury public notices on a website that few if any citizens visit and effectively would kill the public’s right to know.
These measures put local governments into private business, expanding government reach. Posting of public notices to government sites is not a healthy option for democracy. 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.
Philip M. Lucey is executive director of the North Carolina Press Association.
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