Bill threatens public’s right to know

By Corey Friedman

It could qualify as a Freudian slip — in a moment of curt clarity, a North Carolina lawmaker apparently showed us how he really feelstucker about the public he was elected to serve.

“I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet,” state Sen. Tommy Tucker interjected, cutting off North Carolina Press Association President Hal Tanner III during a tense exchange at a Tuesday committee meeting.

Lawmakers were debating Senate Bill 287, which would allow local governments in a tenth of North Carolina counties to hide public notices on their obscure and little-used websites instead of placing public notices in local newspapers. Tanner, who is publisher of the News-Argus in Goldsboro, challenged Tucker’s interpretation of a voice vote held in committee to move the bill forward.

Tucker, a Waxhaw Republican who co-chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, declared that the bill had received a favorable reading after a voice vote that we consider questionable at best. By the press association’s headcount, the bill wouldn’t have passed if each member’s vote had actually been recorded.

Sen. Michael Walters, a Proctorville Democrat, asked Tucker to put the issue to rest by calling each committee member by name for his or her vote. Tucker cut off his colleague, adjourned the meeting and hustled away in a huff. His bizarre and childish behavior apparently is Senate-sanctioned, as legislative rules don’t allow for roll-call votes in committee. That’s a parliamentary quirk that makes committee votes inconsequential and allows chairmen to push through bad bills over their members’ strident objections.

SB 287, which now advances in the Senate whether or not it really passed in committee, would allow 10 of North Carolina’s 100 counties — Burke, Graham, Guilford, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Mecklenburg, Swain, Union and Wake — to post announcements for public hearings and other government actions on their websites rather than in the local paper and its website.

The proposal’s clearly a threat to newspaper revenues that could lead to layoffs and even force some smaller papers out of business, but protecting public notices is about much more than money. Many years ago, lawmakers decided that county, city and town governments ought to give the public advance notice before they took official actions that could affect residents’ lives.

In the Middle Ages, the task of disseminating these notices might fall to town criers. Protestant theologian Martin Luther could tack them below his 95 theses on the church door — which, back then, functioned more or less like a community bulletin board.

But in this day and age, the local newspaper of record is the surest way to reach the widest number of people. It’s where folks go to find out who died, who got married, who was born, whether the high school baseball team won and when the church supper will be held. It’s also where residents have — for generations — been able to find official notices of government meetings, proposed land purchases and foreclosure sales.

Newspapers are the closest thing we have to a true community forum. We think there’s little doubt in most people’s minds that city councils and county boards should continue advertising public notices in, well, public places. Lawmakers who think otherwise are doing local governments’ bidding at the expense of the residents they are supposed to represent.

Government websites would be an appallingly poor replacement for newspaper classified sections. In this increasingly digital world, our generally affluent lawmakers would do well to remember that not everyone has home Internet access on a personal computer, smartphone or tablet. Some older folks who grew up without the Internet choose not to use it, and plenty of residents who would like to be online simply can’t afford it.

Even for those who are online, the public notices bill falls hopelessly flat. Government websites just aren’t daily destinations for most Internet users. Even those who pay utility bills online have little incentive to visit their city or county’s homepage between billing cycles.

Newspaper websites dwarf their government cyberspace counterparts in numbers of unique visitors, time spent per visit and the number and frequency of repeat visits. County and city websites with largely static content can’t compete with news sites like WilsonTimes.com that post dozens of new stories and breaking news updates each day.

The law requires government to post public notices so that residents can participate in the democratic process by attending meetings and lobbying their elected leaders. If counties and cities are allowed to satisfy public notice requirements by burying the announcements in the bowels of their labyrinthine websites, it will be much easier for them to keep secrets and suppress dissent. That’s nothing short of a threat to democracy.

The bottom line is this: Government should post public notices where they’re most accessible to the greatest amount of people. Whether online or in print, that community forum is still the local newspaper.

Legislators who support this wrongheaded bill show us that they’re beholden to government groups and penny-pinching bureaucrats. A vote for SB 287 is a vote against the public’s right to know what local governments are doing.

We believe and expect Wilson County state lawmakers will oppose this bill at every turn, and we call on North Carolina residents to hold their representatives accountable. Lawmakers who vote for government secrecy don’t deserve the privilege of speaking for us in the General Assembly.

[This originally appeared as an editorial in The Wilson Times.]

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