Representatives vote hard against doing business in the dark

First Posted: 3/31/2015

The war has not been won, but if a vote by the state House on Monday is a harbinger, then soon enough it will be time for the public and the newspaper industry to enjoy a victory cigar.

State representatives, by an overwhelming margin of 115-4, approved a bill that will ensure that governmental notices that are required by law to be publicly published continue to appear in newspapers across the state. All four representatives of Robeson County voted in favor of the legislation.

While newspapers, which are fighting for their existence in the New Age of the Internet, were obvious winners, so too was the public. The legislation, which was supported by the North Carolina Press Association, ensures that legal notices that make the public aware of governmental meetings, public hearings, zoning and annexation changes among many other things remain in the pages of newspapers and within easy eyesight of the public.

Some city and county governments, seeking to save money, had sought legislation that would have allowed them to publicize the notices only on their own websites, and not in newspapers. That would have made them with easy reach only to those who have access to the Internet, which would have shut out a sizable chunk of Robeson County and other counties with a similarly poor demographic. But for those of you who have the Internet, how often do you visit Robeson County or Lumberton’s web pages?

The newspaper industry was forced into compromise, and the public is again the biggest beneficiary. The legislation requires that newspapers after publishing the notices in their print editions for a fee, then upload that information to their websites at no additional charge. Additionally, when notices appear more than once, newspapers are required to provide a 15 percent discount for all the notices after the first one.

The bill still must go to the Senate and gain the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory, but Monday’s vote suggests little resistance.

Jane Smith, a Lumberton Democrat who represents all of Robeson County, appears to be solidly in the correct corner.

“I think it’s important that public notices still be printed in newspapers,” Smith said. “Not everyone has the access or likes to read things online. There are a lot of people like me who still like to hold a newspaper in their hands when they read the news.”

History has demonstrated time and again that government works well only when it is transparent. Politicians, when given the opportunity to do business out of the public eye, can too easily operate in a narrow interest, perhaps their own, rather than out of regard for the public’s best interest.

The House bill passed on Monday, should it become law, provides additional comfort by making it more difficult for politicians to act the dark or even the shade. That is the right thing — and our elected leaders in the House are to be commended for recognizing that.