Commissioners split on public notice issue

By Vicki Hyatt | May 08, 2013

The Haywood County Commissioners were undecided Monday on whether informing the public about things such as plans to incur debt, elections, tax notices, calls for bids or changes to ordinances are worth the cost.

Under pending legislation in Raleigh, Haywood is one of 10 counties in the state where it will be optional to inform residents about public actions except through the county website.

Statistics on how much the county website is used were not made available by press deadline.

At present, all government entities must publish notices in the county newspaper of record to inform taxpayers about certain actions. While he didn’t introduce the bill, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, added most of the counties in his district, including Haywood, to a measure that makes newspaper published notices optional. The act covers county government and all the municipalities within the county.  Davis said he asked counties if they wanted to be included, and that he received an email from County Manager Marty Stamey giving the OK.

Mountaineer General Manager Jeff Schumacher asked the commissioners to remove Haywood from the list, arguing that of the $30,000 or so budgeted annually to publish the notices, not all of the budget is spent, and if it is spent, much of it is recouped when it becomes part of the legal fee process.

“This is a small price to pay to ensure that everyone in the county has the same opportunity to know what is going on,” Schumacher said, noting there’s a substantial number of people in the county who don’t use or have ready access to the Internet.

Commissioner Michael Sorrells argued that the future is online and said he supports actions that can save money.

“People who want to know something will find out,” he said.

Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said it is important to look at the demographics in the county, as well as Internet access.

“I think our county is unique,” he said. “We have a duty to give notice to the public in a way they can use it. I’m not sure we can do that if we notice it on our website.”

Swanger said he would like to see Haywood removed from the list.

Commissioner Bill Upton argued the board has a duty to fight for openness, and said government needs to use all possible avenues to get their message out.

If publishing a notice in the news media is optional, who will pick and choose what to advertise and what not to advertise, he asked.

Jonathan Key, publisher of The Mountaineer, says there is no reason to complicate matters.

“Right now residents know where the legal advertisements are going to be…in their local newspaper. How will they know if the commissioners chose not to publish one? It’s working fine the way it is, and there seems to be no reason to change it,” he said.

Swanger said the rules for providing public notice are very specific, and said if the information is on the local government website only, the person in charge will need to be very diligent ensuring the process is followed.

County Attorney Chip Killian, who is also a lobbyist in Raleigh, said the key is keeping good records. He noted the public notice issue has mixed support in Raleigh with those from urban areas supporting online only and those in rural areas resisting the change.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he supported the measure because he thought it would save money, but said he’s received comments from people who think the county is “trying to pull something over on them.”

“I thought it was a great thing until I started hearing from the public,” he said, “but I am for saving money wherever we can.”

Ensley said he wanted to think about the issue before voting on it.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he saw good points on both sides.

While he supported the option to save money, there are specific requirements on how public notice is to be given. Failure to follow the law could result in costly litigation, he said.

“If it is such a good thing, then why aren’t all 100 counties on the bill?” Kirkpatrick asked.