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Wednesday, 01 May 2013 01:22

Bill could move legal notices from newspapers to the Internet

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In several counties in Western North Carolina, a showdown between the printed word and the digital age could soon take place. A bill has passed the N.C. Senate that allows some town and county governments in the region to opt out of placing legal and public notices in the community newspapers of record and instead put them on a government website.

 

The debate has fiscal conservatives and proponents of local government autonomy pitted against skeptics who believe the losers will be residents who will no longer be able to keep a watchful on their elected officials.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is a staunch supporter of the bill and included in it five of the seven counties in his district — Graham, Macon, Swain, Haywood and Jackson. Davis said towns and county governments statewide spend $11 million combined on printing such public notices, which they are required to do by law to advertise public meetings, tax matters, election notices, bids for government contracts and more.

Taking away the requirement of printing the notices in the local newspaper of record and giving towns and counties the cheaper alternative of posting the notices on the Internet was a no-brainer for Davis.

“Anytime I can give local government options to save money, I’ll do it,” Davis said.

The bill is of the local variety, which means it will only affect the counties that are named in it. Originally, all seven of the counties in Davis’ district were named in the bill, but Cherokee and Clay counties were left off the final draft because government officials there did not contact Davis in time to be included. 

Local bills are limited to 14 counties. The N.C. House of Representatives must still pass the measure.

Davis gave up the two counties in order for another lawmaker jump on board. But he said he plans to add Cherokee and Clay counties in a future bill. 

Although Davis acknowledges that perhaps some of the counties and towns named on the bill are not willing participants, he said the bill only gives them the option of switching to a web-based announcement system. If county commissioners or town alderman decide to keep paying for a newspaper to print their notices, then that is OK as well.

The key is that they’ll have a choice, Davis said. To go digital, governing boards will have to adopt a resolution, according to the bill.

“Right now, they don’t have the option, but if it passes, they will have the option,” Davis said. “If they chose not to do it, that’s their business.”

Opinions are split on the matter among municipal and county governments in the region. In Franklin, Alderman Bob Scott asked whether the mountainous reaches of the state, where Internet is sometimes scarce, would be a good location to do away with print notifications and rely on an all-digital format. He disagreed with Davis’ move to include the mountain region on a bill with the likes of Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham and Forsyth counties, where Internet access is easier to come by.

“I don’t understand why he’s doing this,” Scott said. “We’ve got so many people in the western part of the state that don’t have Internet service.”

In prior years, Scott has pushed the town to expand its printed notifications and said he plans on introducing a preemptive resolution at the Franklin Town Board’s meeting in May. The resolution would ensure the town keeps publishing print notices regardless of the state bill. In 2011, the town voted to oppose a similar bill that was making its way through the legislature.

Although savings to the larger municipalities covered in the bill could be significant, Scott pointed out that the savings the town of Franklin would realize by going digital would be inconsequential, even more so when compared to the potential consequences of leaving residents in the dark on public matters.

Since July, the town has spent just under $1,500 in legal advertising with the Franklin Press, the Macon County’s newspaper of record. However, $7,500 had been budgeted for the year for printing such notices.

“The whole things just makes no sense at me to all,” Scott said. “It’s not a major savings, and it denies the public’s right to know through newspapers what their government is doing.”

It’s without question that community newspapers would see a considerable drop in revenue without the reliable money they collect from public notices. But civic engagement, not revenue, was the focus of an editorial printed recently in the Franklin Press, a newspaper which has been in publication since 1886. The opinion piece protested the Senate bill because of its possible consequences.

Rachel Hoskins, the newspaper’s publisher, said the Macon County publication still reaches readers who aren’t connected to the Internet. Hoskins said if notices go digital, the public would be getting the raw deal. 

“I think that anytime government makes it more difficult for the general public to engage in their activities, the public loses,” Hoskins said.

But there are also supporters of the bill, many of whom have lobbied for its passage into law. One of the bill’s proponents is Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. Jackson County spends an average of more than $13,000 on legal notices each year with the Sylva Herald, the county’s newspaper of record. It regularly prints notices on public hearings, meetings, delinquent tax lists, grant programs and more.

Nevertheless, Wooten said the costs are not the driving factor behind the county wanting a digital alternative. If the bill passes, Wooten said the county will most likely continue to pay to print certain public notices but avoid them when the cycle of the weekly newspaper in Jackson County becomes cumbersome to public business.

“With one local paper, then you’re kind of at the mercy of your paper,” Wooten said. “Like it or not, we’re heading toward the electronic age.”

For example, when the county seizes property for unpaid taxes and then auctions it off, it must follow a certain schedule for accepting bids. If the paper’s print deadline doesn’t line up correctly with the auction cycle, a process that should only take 10 days can take two weeks or more. If the county goes online, the process could be streamlined.

Furthermore, Wooten said the county could set up a public notification page, email alerts and post fliers for citizens interested in receiving the notices. However, he did acknowledge that there are readers who scan the pages of public notices in small print, tucked away in the back of the paper, and many may not have Internet access. 

“I guess we’d have to deal with that in some way. We don’t want anyone to ever feel that we’re trying not to be transparent.” Wooten said. “There are people who actually do read those legal ads.”

Mark Swanger, chairman of the Haywood County Commission, is one of those people.

“If you’re sitting reading a newspaper ands see the legal notices, you might be prompted to catch something you wouldn’t normally catch,” Swanger said. “That happens to me sometimes — I see something in the newspaper and take an interest in it.”

Conversely, there may not be much draw for normal folks to go out of their way to review the latest legal postings on the county’s website, Swanger said. As one of the largest counties in Western North Carolina, Haywood County may stand to save the most from switching to digital notification. During the past two years, the county spent just under $50,000 in legal advertising.

Nonetheless, Swanger contended the county’s demographics might not be the best suited for digital notifications.

“I would discourage the broad use of it for the most part,” Swanger said. “Not everyone can just go online to a website to access information.”

The argument of limited Internet access is one of the primary reasons the N.C. Press Association has staunchly opposed the bill at the state level. According to Beth Grace, executive director of the press association, presenting the changes to the laws about public notices as just another option for local governments is disingenuous.

“This bill takes public notices and hides them in plain sight on government websites,” Grace said. “It’s making people search for something they don’t even know exists.”

And the bill has caused quite a stir. After it was voted on in committee, a dispute allegedly transpired between newspaper publishers, the press association members and the senate committee chairman Tommy Tucker, R-Waxhaw. The newsman questioned how Tucker declared a clear winner in a 6-5 voice vote.

Tucker allegedly told some in the group something to the extent of, “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”

Although Tucker has publicly disputed the quote, the debate highlights the heated opinions on both sides. Grace said there is no recording of the exchange.

The association will now take the fight to the N.C. House of Representatives to try and stop its passage there. But it is just one of many the association has taken up this year. There are currently a handful of bills in different stages of the General Assembly that chip away at the notification requirements for everything from storage unit liens to the environment.

Grace speculated that part of the push is motivated by legislators unhappy with the news coverage and looking to affect the checkbooks of their local newspapers. Small, family-owned publications will most likely be hit the hardest by a drop in printed public notices, Grace said.

“We think this is mostly about lawmakers that don’t like their local papers and want to hurt them,” Grace said.

However, the association has at least one ally in the House. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he is not on board with the changes proposed for his district. Queen said the newspapers have been publishing notices for so long they know how to do it right, and predicted that the added costs of maintaining a current website with all the notices might negate the savings from not advertising for smaller governments. 

“I’m all for adding Internet notices but not for eliminating or substituting Internet notices for the newspapers ones,” Queen said.

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