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Our view: Public access to public information
Our view

Our view: Public access to public information

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For at least a decade, some state legislators have been trying to eliminate the requirement for local governments to post legal notices in local newspapers, opting instead to put such notices on government websites. Fortunately, their attempts have usually been beaten back by proponents of an informed public.

But that doesn’t keep them from trying, trying again. So it is that a bill, sponsored by N.C. House Democrats and Republicans, was submitted last week that would allow local governments in 12 eastern counties to file their required legal notices on their websites, rather than in local newspapers, if they so choose, as the Journal’s Richard Craver reported.

We like bipartisanship — but not when it hurts North Carolinians.

This is actually the second such bill filed this term. An earlier one, filed in January by House members, only covers Davidson, Forsyth and Rockingham counties in the Triad. Primary co-sponsor Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, says Forsyth’s inclusion was the result of a miscommunication and he’ll remove Forsyth.

But it still would affect readers of The Dispatch of Lexington and the Thomasville Times, as well as Rockingham County’s News & Record and RockinghamNow.

As things stand now, local governments are required to file notices about legal proceedings — bankruptcy proceedings, adoptions, foreclosures, public hearings, tax liens, local legislative proposals, zoning changes, proposed tax increases, divorces, child custody and estates — in local newspapers. Governments have to pay for the privilege. Admittedly, the Journal and other newspapers benefit from the arrangement. For some community newspapers, public legal notices can represent as much as 50% of their revenue, according to the N.C. Press Association.

The bills’ sponsors say that cities and counties should be allowed to save money by posting such notices on their own websites instead — especially during this COVID-related economic downturn.

"Counties, cities, municipalities, businesses and the general public, throughout North Carolina have all suffered economically this year due to the prolonged closure of our economy," Warren said. "This change in the statute will afford all who are required to post legal notices to do so free, or at a reduced rate, representing a savings for all.”

But the current arrangement serves public members, especially older readers and people with lower incomes, who may not be savvy about — or have access to — the internet. They count on public notices in their newspapers to keep them informed about their government's business.

Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Forsyth, told the Journal that he opposed the bill in large part because too many households in North Carolina don't have access to the internet.

As for the economic downturn — hello. Newspapers are businesses that provide jobs, too, and cutting their revenue in half won’t help.

Posting notices on government websites may sound adequate, but some government websites are difficult to navigate.

And, as we wrote about a previous such bill: “Counting on the government to be its own monitor and reporter can lead to disappointment, to say the least. Unpopular or controversial notices could be filed in hard-to-find places. And the timely updating of websites can be neglected.”

For those who wonder why these bills only cover parts of the state rather than the entire state, it's to take advantage of a legal loophole: As local bills, affecting fewer than 14 counties, Gov. Roy Cooper would not be able to veto them — as he did a similar attempt in 2017.

Other such bills are expected to be filed.

The bottom line is that the public deserves access to public information that could affect their lives — and for those who trust the free market more than their government representatives, newspapers are the better option. Both of these bills should die quickly.

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