Public notice bill is ill-conceived

Apr 19, 2013

Government should not have control over the public’s right to know, but that is exactly what proposed Senate Bill 287 would do.

Beth Grace, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, said it best when she said, “it would allow the fox to guard the hen house. “

The bill would provide an option for all government entities in Haywood and several other counties to post public/legal notices on their government website instead of paying to have them printed in the local newspaper.

Public notices include proposed ordinances, road closures, zoning changes, delinquent taxes, election information and more. Sponsors and supporters of the bill would have you believe that removing long-established public notice laws will save local governments millions of dollars. But we must first look at the long-term cost the public will pay for the change.

Public notices have been in newspapers for more than 100 years — an action taken long ago to provide safeguards from back door dealings. The public knows to look for them in the local newspaper. Journalists know to examine these announcements and develop stories out of the content that pertains to something of broader interest.

To make printing the notices in a newspaper optional is a game-changer.

Those who pay taxes to both a city and a county, for instance, would need to search two websites. Plus, local governments would need to ensure the complicated legal requirements for providing public notice are followed to the letter, something Grace pointed out would be opening government agencies to a huge liability.

A website-only option would mean local governments would have to pay much more attention to their websites, something many smaller government units have neither the time nor money to do.

For example, the Town of Maggie Valley hasn’t updated its website with any meeting minutes since July 2012. The Town of Clyde doesn’t have any of its meeting minutes online. It has a link to ordinances, but none are listed. Maintaining a website is time-consuming and expensive unless it is a primary job function. Unlike newspapers that update their websites dozens and dozens of times each day, that’s not the primary focus for a government staff that is pulled in multiple directions.

Then there are the different interpretations about what information is public. Many websites list the contact information for elected officials, but in Canton, only the mayor’s information is available to residents who might want to contact an elected leader after hours. The website states aldermen contact information is considered personal and  suggests calling town hall.

Surely this is not the only information sharing that would vary widely from site to site.

 

The bottom dollar

The public’s interest is always our first priority as a newspaper, but we also have a financial interest. People seem to forget that we, too, are a small business and have been impacted by the current economy just like other businesses. We are also taxpayers and believe it would be penny wise and pound foolish to change the public notice law as proposed.

We hope legislators will work with local governments and the state press association to work out a compromise that preserves the public’s right to know. House Bill 723, a bill filed on behalf of the NCPA that ensures newspapers don’t charge government entities higher rates for advertising and even gives a discount for notices that have to be published more than once, is a good place to start.

The bill also states that newspapers shall post the notice on its website at no additional charge. Unlike the hit and miss updates on a local government website, most newspapers are posting item on their website practically every minute of the work day.

Residents shouldn’t wait for this bill to pass before speaking up because one day it will affect you. Advocate for your right to know by contacting your representatives and senators to show your opposition to SB 287.

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