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Grooms suggests putting Richmond County proposed budget online in future; open government expert agrees

The Richmond County Board of Commissioners listen to the proposed budget on June 6. From left: Andy Grooms, Robin Roberts, Dr. Rick Watkins, Chairman Jeff Smart, Vice Chairman Justin Dawkins, Toni Maples, Jason Gainey. Photo by William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — During the public hearing on the county’s budget Tuesday evening, one resident in the crowd asked, “Where was it available?”

The answer: the clerk’s office.

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Andy Grooms suggested making the proposed budget available online in the future.

“I understand what comes with that, good and bad, but I’m all about transparency,” Grooms said. “And I think that if we’re willing to go on putting tax listings online, then we could do this the same way.”

Municipal governments have three statutory requirements to notify residents about the proposed budget and to solicit input, according to Kara Millonzi with the UNC School of Government.

First, on the same day that the budget officer submits the proposed budget to the governing board, he or she must file a copy of it in the clerk’s office,” Millonzi said. “It must remain there, available for public inspection during normal office hours, until the governing board adopts the budget ordinance.”

The second requirement, Millonzi added, is to make a copy of the proposed budget available to all news media in the county.

The third is to publish a statement notifying the public that the proposed budget has been submitted and is open for inspection by the public in the clerk’s office.

Kara Millonzi, professor of Public Law and Government; associate dean for Research and Innovation, UNC School of Government

“Questions often arise as to what it means to ‘publish’ the statement,” Millonzi said, pointing to NCGS 1-597 for the answer.

“It states that whenever a notice is required by law to be published or advertised in a newspaper, ‘such publication, advertisement or notice … shall be published in a newspaper with a general circulation to actual paid subscribers …,” Millonzi said. “The newspaper must have maintained at least a weekly publishing schedule for a minimum of six months.”

However, Millonzi added that if there is only one newspaper in the county, the publication does not need to meet the additional requirements.

It should also be noted that online publications, like the Richmond Observer, would not meet the requirement based on how the statute is written.


If there is no newspaper in the county, Millonzi said, then the notice can be published in an adjoining county or county within the same judicial district.

“Many units send out press releases, tweets, and other social media messages highlighting aspects of the budget,” Millonzi said. “Increasingly units are publishing the entire proposed budget and budget message on their website. Although often more effective at alerting the public in today’s digital age, these additional efforts must supplement, not supplant, the statutory notice requirements.”

Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, journalism professor at Elon University.
Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, journalism professor at Elon University.

Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center, supports the idea of making proposed budgets more accessible.

“I think it’s terrific when a public body commits to making documents available online for the public,” Fuller said. “We recommend making meeting packets, agendas, budgets and other similar documents available online for the public to find easily as soon as the documents are ready.”

Fuller said the state’s open meetings law prohibits public bodies from “deliberating or taking action by reference to documents if the public is not able to understand what is being deliberated or acted upon, so advanced publication is consistent with the requirements of the law.”

By putting proposed and final budgets online, Fuller said governments “can only enhance the public’s awareness of the budget process.”

“It can also produce more informed citizens who can comment on the budget publicly at meetings, express concerns to their elected leaders and take action on budget concerns in their communities,” Fuller added. “There are no downsides to giving the public more information about how taxpayer money is spent.”

Fuller added that a lot of local governments “big and small” across the state make their budgets available online, including Buncombe County and the town of Beech Mountain.

“Although I think their system could use an update,” he said of the latter, “it shows that small communities can still make information available for the public without much expense.”

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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.