Friday, 05 February 2021 18:05

Richmond County included in bill that would allow public notices on municipal websites instead of in newspapers

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Richmond County included in bill that would allow public notices on municipal websites instead of in newspapers RO file photo

ROCKINGHAM — A bill introduced in the N.C. House of Representatives last week would allow certain counties, including Richmond, to bypass newspapers and post their public notices on their own websites.


House Bill 35 would allow specific counties to adopt an ordinance to publish public notices online in lieu of or in addition to the local newspaper of record currently outlined in state statute.

If those counties choose to publish notices on their own websites, they must publish instructions on how to access those notices at least once a month for 12 months in a newspaper of general circulation.

The bill also instructs those counties to:

  • Publish notices on the website of the governing board no later than the time that publication is required by law
  • Produce a link to all notices on the main page
  • Maintain notices on the website for at least a year after publication and make them searchable
  • File a copy of the notice in a notice book maintained separate from the minutes or ordinance books. The notice book should be indexed and made available for public inspection.
  • Mail or email a copy of the notice to anyone who has provided a written request to receive notices. That written request may be required to be renewed annually.

According to state legislative records, the bill was filed Jan. 28 and passed its first reading. It was referred to House Judiciary Committee 4. If it’s favored, it will then be sent to the Local Government Committee, then the Rules Committee.

Reps. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, Jay Adams, R-Catawba, and Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, are the primary sponsors. 

Warren said unlike other similar bills that have been introduced in the past, this one is a local bill and doesn’t apply to every county.

Currently, the counties listed are: Catawba, Cabarrus, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Montgomery, Jackson, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford, Stanly, and Swain.

However, Warren said that not all of those counties would be on the list when it comes up at the next committee meeting. But Richmond will.

The bill also applies to municipalities within those counties.

According to Warren, the counties included in the bill were inserted at the request of the local representatives.

Warren, who voted down a previous bill nearly a decade ago, said the bill isn’t intended as retribution against newspapers, but as a cost-saving measure for the counties that have suffered financial impact.

When searching for public notices in counties from Currituck to Cherokee, Warren added he may not know which newspaper to look for, but knows he can check those counties’ websites.

Warren also cited the cut in newspapers’ publication days and the widespread availability of internet access in his reasoning.

While the bill doesn’t specify delinquent tax listings by name, Warren clarified in an email that the bill “allows for ‘any notice permitted or required by law,’ which may include delinquent tax listings.”

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Richmond County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Don Bryant asked County Manager Bryan Land if the county would be advertising tax listings “in the paper.”

Land replied that right now, state law dictates that those listings have to be advertised.

When Bryant asked Land about the bill, Land noted that similar bills in the past have been shot down.

“They’re trying to push it one more time, but it’ll be considerable savings for some of the counties,” Land said.

Bryant then asked Land if he thought residents would look at the county website, to which Land simply replied, “Yes sir.”

The RO reached out to several local municipalities to find out how much they spent on required public notices in 2020:

  • Ellerbe - $51.99
  • Dobbins Heights - $410.94 public notices, $2,193 delinquent tax listings
  • Hamlet - $6,381.68 in total advertising (includes required public notices and employment positions), $2,356.67 of which was for delinquent tax listings

Rep. Ben Moss, R-Richmond, is a co-sponsor of Warren’s bill.

Moss told the RO on Friday that the bill gives local governments a choice to save money.

Serving on the Richmond County Board of Commissioners for a decade, Moss said there were several times when “the price was way up there … sometimes it could be negotiated, sometimes it couldn’t.”

If a local government can save $10,000-25,000 here and there, it adds up, Moss added.

“I want people to be notified … I think there should be several avenues or choices that the municipalities or county or whoever could take, or should take,” Moss said.

The freshman representative added that he’s not sure how much visibility newspapers are getting now compared to years past.

“We need to catch up with the times,” Moss said. “Most everybody, no matter how rich or poor they are, they have a cellphone and they can pull up websites.”

Moss said local governments are “forced to use one group, which can monopolize it, which is how it’s been in my mind the past few years. ‘Hey, this is our price, you have to put it in our paper, so, get your money ready.’”

As of Friday afternoon, Moss said he had received one phone call from outside the district in favor of the bill and none in opposition.

A similar bill was filed in the House on Feb. 3, which includes the following counties in the eastern part of the state: Bertie, Beaufort, Camden, Chowan, Craven, Gates, Harnett, Hertford, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington.

“Like a bad penny, legislation to hide public notices from the public is back in N.C. General Assembly,” Phil Lucey,  executive director of the N.C. Press Association, said in an editorial. “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.”

Lucey says public notices alert residents to a wide range of governmental activities, from rezoning to delinquent tax notices.

“Although they cost local government a small amount of money, public notices generate revenue by compelling the collection of past-due taxes,” Lucey argued. “Indeed, the threat of having their names published in the local newspaper (and on its website) for nonpayment incentivizes the timely payment of property taxes by an incalculable amount.”

Using Moore County as an example, Lucey said public notices can more than pay for themselves.

The Moore County government reportedly paid The Pilot $8,000 to advertise its delinquent tax listings, which totaled $1.37 million. After the ad ran, Lucey said, the county collected $821,000.

“Instead of eroding the public’s right to know, county commissioners and city council members should be providing as much information as possible to all their constituents, including the many who have no internet access or poor service.”

Lucey also counters Warren’s reasoning that everyone has the ability to access online notices.

“According to many studies, fully 30% of North Carolinians either live where there is no internet service, they can’t afford it, or won’t read online even if available,” especially seniors, Lucey noted.

Citing a survey conducted by the NCPA, Lucey says newspaper websites drew four to five times as much traffic as county websites.

Lucey added that, even without a government mandate, newspapers publish public notices for free online at ncnotices.com.

The current bills, if passed, “would bury public notices on a website that few if any citizens visit and effectively would kill the public's right to know,” according to Lucey.

“Readers and viewers still look to newspapers to get community news that no other organization provides,” Lucey continued. “So it’s a false echo for Rep. Warren and others to argue that it’s time now (when it wasn’t time 10 years ago when he voted against earlier legislation to kill public notice) to allow counties to pull notices because newspapers may publish less frequently today.”

Lucey contends, contrary to what Warren said, that the bills are an assault on newspapers doing their jobs.

“We are the public watchdogs and occasionally we report on news that is not favorable to elected officials,” Lucey said. “That role will never change. This is about accountability and transparency. 

“As described by former Republican lawyer (and) House member Bonner Stiller, giving local governments the choice to suspend notice publication to the public in newspapers would ‘create havoc’ for free press rights every time a newspaper criticized the government.”

Lucey added that posting notices on government websites are “not a healthy option for democracy” and would expand government reach.

“Newspapers are an independent third party responsible for printing and archiving a permanent record of these public notices,” Lucey said, “who would be held accountable if these notices were only required to post on a government run website?”  

The Richmond Observer is an online member of the N.C. Press Association.

Current statute, however, mandates that notices be advertised in print publications with a paid subscription.

 

Last modified on Friday, 05 February 2021 18:20