Haywood added to public notice legislation

NC Press Association fights for public's right to know
By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Apr 15, 2013

Proposed local legislation in North Carolina could change long-standing laws requiring government agencies to notify residents of government meetings, public hearings, proposed ordinances, zoning changes and other important government activities.

Senate Bill 287, filed March 13, would allow Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Guilford, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Union and Wake counties and their municipalities to publish public notices on government websites instead of in the local newspaper.

“It would allow the fox to guard the hen house,” said Beth Grace, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association.

During a lengthy Local Government Committee hearing Tuesday in Raleigh,

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, added his district counties, including Haywood, onto the bill at the last minute, according to Grace. She and small group of publishers attended the committee meeting to lobby against the bill. She said Davis, who is chairman of the committee, allowed lengthy statements to those in support of the bill, including two legislators, and four municipal and county associations.

“He allowed our legislative liaison John Bussian less than three minutes to speak before he shut down further opposing discussion and declared that no vote would be held,” Grace wrote in a letter to NCPA members. She said she was disappointed David didn't call for a vote because she knew she had enough votes to kill the bill.

Davis said Friday he called the counties in his district and asked if they would like to be included on the bill and Haywood County responded that it would. He said he was in favor of the legislation because it would give local governments the option of posting notices online, which would save money.

"It wouldn't force them to, it just gives them the option," he said.

Davis said counties and municipalities spent $11 million in the state last year on publishing public notices. He doesn't think the bill would restrict the public's access to important information. He said the public notices may even reach a broader audience by being posted online because it would always be there and be accessible at any time.

Grace said government created the public notice law more than 100 years ago because it knew it couldn’t police itself and wanted to make sure the public was safeguarded from back room dealing. She doesn’t understand why they would want to change a law that has worked so well for so long.

“Papers run them accurately and do it generally at a lower rate,” she said. “People know they are in the newspaper — they don’t know to look at the government website.”

On Wednesday, The NCPA filed its own compromise bill, House Bill 723, which membership approved a year ago. The compromise bill states that all public notice advertising required by law shall be published in a local newspaper, but the advertising rate shall not exceed the local commercial rate of the newspaper selected to publish the notice.

While the goal of SB287 is to cut down the cost of advertising for local governments, the goal of HB723 is to keep newspapers from charging government agencies a higher rate for public notices. Newspapers will have to file a sworn statement of its commercial rate with the clerk of superior court. The published advertisement shall also be placed on the newspaper’s website at no additional cost and newspapers will give discounts on notices that are required to run multiple times.

Mark Swanger, Haywood County Commission chairman, said he was following the legislation, but the board hadn’t discussed the bill or taken a position yet.

“Electric notifications would save money, but I’m concerned it may not reach as many people as publication might,” he said.David Teague, county public information officer, said the county budgeted about $30,000 for the publication of legal notices. He said legal notices were different than public notices, which don't have to be published in the newspaper. Notices like commissioner meetings can be emailed to newspapers and posted on the county site.

Grace said she understood the need for local governments to save money, but if SB287 passes, governments might find that it costs them more. She said the government could be sued for not operating its site properly.

“Governments are not set up to do this. They think it will save them money but they could spend $25,000 up to $100,000 to create a secured website and run it according to the law,” she said. “They have enough to do without assuming a new liability.”

The NCPA has fought this same issue for six years and has won most of them. Grace hopes the compromise bill will open up the dialogue between the two interest groups to work out something that will be in the best interest of the public and local government.

She also pointed out that those public notices support local newspapers that are struggling just like many small businesses. As for the argument that governments should not have to subsidize newspapers for a public service, “I say newspapers will to do for free if legislators refuse money for doing their jobs because that too is a public service,” Grace said.

Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-Wilmington, a member of the State and Local Government Committee, also opposes SB 287. In a letter he sent out Wednesday, he said local politicians and bureaucrats were praising the bill because of how much money it would save.

“None of them were concerned that in some parts of North Carolina only half the population has access to a computer,” Goolsby wrote. He said the public had a right to know what the government is doing.

“It is not unheard of for government to be penny wise and pound-foolish,” he wrote. “Whenever officials and bureaucrats line up to tell you that they want to save you money by obscuring their activities, you should be wary.”

Davis did not call for a vote on the bill and asked sponsors to continue to work on it. Goolsby said he is hopeful a compromise will be reached to protect the public’s right to know and also allows some cost savings to taxpayers.

Grace said the issue would be brought back to committee at noon April 16 and the NCPA would be there. she asked that those in opposition to the bill to contact Davis and other legislators.

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