HB 343 protects public’s right to know on government notices

We could set the calendar by it as every year there is another push of legislation that would relieve local governments of the legal requirement of publishing public notices in a newspaper of general circulation.

The latest is Senate Bill 343, which is a warmed-over bill from recent General Assembly sessions that effectively eliminates as a requirement government public notice advertising in local newspapers by making it optional for government agencies to publish the information on their own websites. Public notices include important announcements of special meetings, land transfers, contract bids and other government actions.

SB 343’s primary sponsor, Trudy Wade, a Republican from Guilford County, says the legislation is a recognition of the changing times and how people get their news, electronically as opposed to through print.

The newspaper industry obviously has a pecuniary interest, and during a time of transition frets over the threat of losing another revenue source. But the public’s right to know easily eclipses our concerns. Light, it has been said, is the best disinfectant, and we simply cannot have government operating in the dark.

Imagine for a second the potential for abuse anytime a newspaper is critical of local government. In Robeson County, you don’t have to imagine. A few years back, when The Robesonian published information concerning the excessive pay and benefits of our local commissioners, suddenly this newspaper was not the county’s pick to publish the listing of people and businesses that had not paid their property taxes. The county has returned the tax listing to this newspaper, but we know the mere mention of it always risks punitive action.

You get the point.

Wade misses a big one — that not everyone has dependable access to the Internet, and some who do prefer not to get their news that way. It doesn’t have to be either/or, but can be both of the above.

Which makes compromise legislation, House Bill 572, preferable. The bill, which counts as a primary sponsor Ken Goodman, whose District 66 includes part of Robeson County, maintains the long-standing requirement that government public notices be published in newspapers of general circulation, but it adds two requirements to the benefit of the local government, requiring that the newspapers post the government notices on their own websites at no additional charge, and also provides a 15 percent reduction in the cost of notices that must appear more than once.

So it’s a win-win-win. The notices continue to be published in local newspapers, they appear as well on the Internet, and local governments get a discount in some instances. Additionally, there is nothing preventing local governments from publishing the information on their websites if they wish, although generally the traffic there is somewhere between non-existent and modest.

Our local legislators in the past have been protective of the public’s right to know, and we encourage them to maintain that position and support House Bill 572. It best serves the public’s interest — and there is no compelling argument to the contrary.

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