Compromise bill saves money, serves public

First Posted: 1/12/2015

Richmond Daily Journal

All North Carolinians deserve to know when their local governments hold special meetings or plan public hearings. State lawmakers have a unique opportunity this year to preserve that right and save cities and counties some money in the process.

When the 2015 regular session begins today, Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, plans to introduce a compromise bill that will keep public notice requirements in place and limit the fees newspapers charge to publish the announcements. The bill is modeled after legislation passed in Florida and Tennessee.

In the 2013-14 session, local bills to exempt some North Carolina counties from public notice rules were ultimately unsuccessful. Sponsors of those bills said governments should be able to post notices on their own websites instead of publishing them in newspapers.

While the do-it-yourself approach would cost less than paid advertising, it also would leave the majority of residents uninformed, defeating the very purpose of a public notice. By and large, folks don’t flock to government websites for the latest news and information. They turn to their local newspaper of record — in print or online.

For those who swipe through the day’s stories on smartphones and tablets instead of thumbing through the paper at the breakfast table, Avila’s bill would require newspapers that accept paid public notices to post them online at no additional cost to the government agency.

If some cities and counties had their way, however, the announcements would be available only to those who visit their official websites. That prevents a whole lot of taxpayers from finding out what their government is doing.

More than a fifth of North Carolina residents didn’t have home computers in 2011 and an additional 13 percent had computers that were not connected to the Internet, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report published in May 2013.

Proponents of weakening public notice requirements say it’s all about saving taxpayer money. But excluding large numbers of those taxpayers from the public discourse for a small savings amounts to a bargain struck at the expense of government accountability.

Avila stood up for the people’s right to know when she spoke out against a bill to exempt Guilford County from public notice requirements in May 2013.

“We’re exempting ourselves from laws that we ask the private sector to obey,” Avila said on the House floor. “When we pass laws and taxes and regulations and we hear the private sector yell, ‘It’s too expensive!’ our response is, ‘Well, that’s just your cost of doing business.’ Well, members, that’s our cost of doing business, and public notifications to our citizens is a cost we must incur.”

The compromise bill would lower that cost of doing business by requiring newspapers to offer a 15 percent discount for notices that must be published multiple times.

It also would ensure uniformity across North Carolina’s 100 counties and prevent a patchwork of local bills seeking special exemptions. Why should residents of some counties have less opportunity to monitor the goings-on of local government than others?

Newspapers remain the closest thing we have to a community bulletin board. That makes them the most logical place for public notices to appear, whether the news is delivered to your doorstep or downloaded to your screen.

We call on our local lawmakers to support the Avila compromise and ensure that North Carolina keeps public notices where the public can find them.