Like a bad penny, legislation to hide public notices from the public is back in N.C. General Assembly.
House members have filed separate bills that would allow 14 counties in the Piedmont and mountains — including Catawba County — and 12 counties in Eastern North Carolina to run public notices on their websites instead of in local newspapers. The legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing Guilford County to do that.
This has been a bad idea over the past 10 years, and it is arguably a worse idea today, when a public health crisis calls for greater transparency, not less.
The notices alert the public to government actions, including proposed rezonings of properties, permanent road closings, possible annexations, issuances of bonds, competitive bidding, budget hearings and delinquent tax notices.
Although local governments must pay to place them in a newspaper, public notices help generate revenue by compelling the collection of past-due taxes. Indeed, the threat of having their names published in the local newspaper (and on its website) for nonpayment drives the timely payment of property taxes by an incalculable amount. For instance, Moore County paid its local paper, The Pilot, $8,000 to meet a legal requirement to publish the names of delinquent taxpayers who collectively owed $1.37 million. After the listings ran, Moore County collected $821,000 of the outstanding debt.
Instead of eroding the public’s right to know, county commissioners and city council members should be providing as much information as possible to all their constituents, including the many who have no internet access or poor service.
Newspapers are a community forum. That role does not change with the manner in which you receive local news important to you.
Current law ensures that public notices reach the largest possible cross-section of the community. While the internet has reduced dissemination of news via a printed product, newspapers almost universally have added websites and other digital products that in many cases reach a larger audience than the newspapers reached before. Traffic on local government websites is infinitesimally small by comparison.
According to many studies, fully 30% of North Carolinians either live where there is no internet service, can’t afford internet access, or (especially in the case of most seniors) won’t read online even if they have access.
As for the alleged savings the measure would provide to local governments, the fact is public notice advertising is a tiny fraction of the budget in every county. Removing the newspaper publication cost would scarcely be noticed on local government budget ledgers — except to the extent it may reduce their leverage to collect unpaid taxes, making the repeal of the public notices penny wise and pound foolish.
The purpose of these notices is not to subsidize the operation of small-town newspapers, it is to keep the public informed.
This legislation is about hiding the business of the people and trying to strike a financial blow on newspapers for doing their job. We are the public watchdogs, and occasionally we report on news that is not favorable to elected officials. That role will never change.
Newspapers have proved to be a lifeline of community news vital to the public during the pandemic; instead of trying to kill the messengers, counties and cities should continue running legal notices in newspapers and help maintain this vital line of communication to the local community.
Contact your local legislator and county commissioners and tell them to keep the fox out of the henhouse. Tell them to keep public notices in newspapers so that the public can see them.