Lawmakers tout compromise bill on delivering public notices

First Posted: 3/18/2015

RALEIGH — Cities and counties can get on the information superhighway without leaving elderly and low-income North Carolinians in the dust, state lawmakers said Tuesday.

Sponsors of a compromise bill that ensures public legal notices would be available online and in local newspapers touted the legislation as essential to open government in a General Assembly news conference held in conjunction with Sunshine Week, a national campaign for government transparency.

“I think we have reached a compromise on the bill that is good for all parties concerned,” said state Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Buncombe, “including neglected folks in rural areas who have no access to the Internet. That helps a lot of my folks, especially in Transylvania County and the remote regions.”

Senate Bill 129 and House Bill 156 would require North Carolina newspapers that accept paid legal advertising to place public notices online at no cost. The legislation also would give local governments a 15 percent discount on notices required to be printed multiple times.

State law requires cities and counties to advertise public hearings, the sale of public land, tax foreclosures and other actions in the same way that litigants must issue notices of certain civil actions by publication.

Compromise bills were filed in response to failed legislation that sought to give city and county governments the option of placing public notices on their own websites instead of advertising in local newspapers.

Going online-only would make the information unavailable to roughly a fifth of North Carolina residents without home Internet access, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“To move to this too quickly would be to disenfranchise, I think, a lot of people in our state,” said Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, who introduced the Senate version of the bill on Feb. 25.

Legislators agree that public notices should be available online, but supporters of the compromise bills point out that newspapers’ websites see significantly higher traffic than official city and county sites.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill require newspapers to make public notices available online. Papers without their own website could fulfill the requirement by publishing the notices on a statewide website maintained by the North Carolina Press Association.

Lawmakers said there could come a day when virtually everyone has high-speed Internet access, but that day is likely decades down the road.

“I think that this bill is a reasonable compromise that will allow us to plan for the future,” said Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne.

In the meantime, legislators acknowledge that many of their constituents still rely on print newspapers to monitor the goings-on in city and county government.

“People like to read their newspapers,” said Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake. “They like to get that Sunday morning paper and have their coffee and sit in the bay window and read the Wake Weekly or Raleigh News & Observer.”

Bill sponsors scheduled the news conference to coincide with Sunshine Week because they say requiring newspaper publication of legal notices — in print and online — is a key component of government transparency.

“To me, this is, always has been and always will be a point of transparency,” Sanderson said. “All of those who have been elected to serve the public have a responsibility to inform the public of what we’re doing.”

Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.