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 and 12 counties in the east — Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Craven, Gates, Harnett, Hertford, Pasquotank, Perqumans, Tyrrell and Washington — to run public notices on county websites instead of in newspapers. 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.
Public notices in newspaper pages and websites catalog government actions in cases of competitive bidding, rezonings, budget hearings, auctions, property transfers, delinquent tax notices, street name changes and more. They alert the public to disruptive land-use changes for things like sewer plants, asphalt plants and garbage incinerators. They tell the public in advance about proposals for traffic-clogging high-density developments and plans for wider roads or new roads.
Although they cost governments a small amount of money, public notices generate revenue in several ways, including the collection of past-due taxes. Indeed, the threat of having names published in the local newspaper (and on its website) for nonpayment incentivizes the timely payment of property taxes. 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 ad, Moore County collected $821,000 of the outstanding debt.
Current law ensures that public notices reach the largest possible cross-section of the community. While the internet has reduced the distribution of news via a printed product, newspapers still circulate in vast numbers and almost universally have added 24-7 web-based products that in many cases reach a larger audience than those news companies did before websites proliferated.
Traffic on county websites is infinitesimally small compared to newspaper websites and print circulation. A recent study by the North Carolina Press Association showed newspaper websites drew 4-5 times as much traffic as county websites. While some proprietary content is limited to subscribers, online access to public notices is unlimited, and newspapers place all of them on a central statewide website — www.ncnotices.com — where the public can read notices from around the state for free.
According to many studies, fully 30 percent of North Carolinians either live where there is no internet service, they can’t afford it, or won’t read online even if available (including most senior citizens). Not everyone has a cell phone or computer to reach county websites either. But these people can access the printed page of their local newspaper.
The fact is legal notice advertising is a tiny fraction of the budget in every county, but it is an important check and balance service that newspapers have provided to local governments for decades. 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 pound foolish.
If our papers didn’t play this role, many vulnerable taxpayers would be left in the dark about meetings of local governments that their tax dollars pay for, as well as the decisions and taxes to which those meetings might lead.
This is not about cost savings for the counties. This is about hiding the business of the people and it is an attempt by some lawmakers who want to strike back at 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. This is about accountability and transparency.
Posting of public notices to government sites is not a healthy option for democracy. Newspapers are an independent third party responsible for printing and archiving a permanent record of these public notices — who would be held accountable if these notices were only required to post on a government-run website?
The attempts at retribution against local newspapers are a bad idea. Contact your local legislators 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.
Phil Lucey is the executive director of the North Carolina Press Association.