Legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly that will save local governments money by giving them the option to post legal notices on the internet — rather than in a so-called “newspaper of record.”
Cities and counties are required by law to officially notify the public when certain things are about to occur, including public meetings and hearings (e.g. a proposed change in zoning), purchase and contract bids, and, of course, elections. They do this by taking out notices in a newspaper (much like a classified ad). These cost money, and taxpayers foot the bill — to the tune of millions of dollars a year. It’s a significant source of revenue for media corporations, and local governments aren’t given a special rate.
House Bill 432 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 343, would allow cities and counties to publish anything they are now required to publish in old-fashioned newspapers directly on their own websites. It would be up to a city or county to decide if they want to post these notices in addition to or instead of using a print newspaper.
Representative Chuck McGrady, the primary sponsor of the House bill, says that public notices “have little or no value but generate plenty of money for newspapers — I don’t think government ought to be in the business of subsidizing pretty much anything.”
The legislation would also allow local governments to host legal notices from attorneys and non-government entities on their websites, including things like the disposition of property (such as a foreclosure sale), probate, and estate proceedings. This, of course, would provide another revenue stream to cities and counties: the bill mandates that 50 percent of the money would go to additional teacher pay, 40 percent to the city or county’s general fund, and 10 percent for administrative costs.
But not everyone is thrilled about these proposed cost-saving and revenue enhancing reforms. Critics claim that cities and counties who might choose to only publish notices online would exclude any people who do not have internet access, who are not inclined to visit government websites, or who are used to getting their notices the old-fashioned way: in print. This limitation, they claim, would effectively infringe on a citizen’s right to know about government activities that affect their communities.
“Newspapers continue to reach an overwhelming amount of citizens compared to county websites,” said the North Carolina Press Association in a recent statement. “This bill would bury notices on a website that few if any citizens visit and effectively would kill the public’s right to know.”
Senator Andrew Brock, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, countered by saying that not everyone subscribes to a newspaper, that some publications charge too much for public notices, and that some people don’t read newspapers at all.
“We used to have a town crier that would stand on the corner and shout public notices,” Senator Brock told the Salisbury Post. “There wasn’t much outcry when the newspapers put him out of business.”
And not many people outside the legal profession really pay attention to these notices anyway, added Representative McGrady .
“There’s a whole range of things that get published, much of which no one but a group of lawyers has interest in,” he commented in a recent News & Observer article. “Technology has changed. We shouldn’t be wed to a notice system that was designed a century ago.”