Lawmakers mull letting cities, counties post public notices online, rather than in newspapers

By: - March 23, 2023 12:02 pm
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The oft-debated subject pits the decline of local newspapers against the public’s access to information.

The fourth generation of his family to publish a newspaper, Lockwood Phillips has a reporter’s sensibility for offhandedly recalling moments when journalism served its local community.

Take 2011, for instance, Phillips told legislators earlier this week: The state, in charge of permitting the construction of a smelting facility in the Port of Morehead City, followed the law and posted public notices in The News & Observer. But the newspaper is based about 150 miles from where that plant would be built.

Then local reporters published stories about the plan, leading to opposition from community members who successfully pressured the Canadian company to abandon its scheme.

Publisher Lockwood Phillips

“The smelting facility was never built. [It] would have destroyed the city of Morehead and the county of Carteret,” said Phillips, the publisher of the Carteret County News-Times. “Unfortunately, the governor was required to come and apologize for that underhanded, and I think, mischievous effort on the part of the state.”

Phillips appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday to oppose a bill that would allow Onslow County and cities inside its jurisdiction to publish public notices online instead of in print.

Phillips was one of several publishers and friends of the press who spoke out against the proposal.

“This is about, really, public access and public transparency,” Phillips said.

Sen. Michael Lazzara

In the past, when newspapers were thriving and published daily in small communities across North Carolina, cities and counties would post public notices in the ink-stained pages. But as the number of local newspapers across the state and country have dwindled and scaled back publishing, North Carolina legislators are considering giving some local governments the option of notifying the public about meetings through another method: posting notices on their websites.

“Print media has been a mainstay for hundreds of years, and very valuable tool in communities, of which public notices have been published for many years,” said Sen. Michael A. Lazzara (R-Onslow). “But as you all know, many of the print agencies have gone through difficult times, and many of the papers have reduced their actual print times.”

Enter Senate Bill 200, a proposal Lazzara authored that he said would allow the county to continue publishing its notices in the paper if it chose, but would help local officials get the word out without having to rely on a newspaper that has scaled back its printing schedule.

Publisher John McClure

“This not a target on the newspaper agencies,” Lazzara said.

One of those newspaper agencies was at the committee hearing. John McClure, the publisher of the Jacksonville Daily News, told Lazzara and his colleagues that the Onslow County paper was still published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

“So, that’s three times a week, which I think will serve your public notice needs adequately,” said McClure.

SB 200 is being handled as a “local bill,” Lazzara said, but Onslow isn’t the only local government in North Carolina angling for the change this session. There are similar measures for Rockingham County, Durham city and county, and a bill that applies to 11 towns in and around the Triangle.

It’s also not the first year this concept has been floated at the General Assembly. John Bussian, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association, said the “crusade” goes back at least 15 years, an effort by cities and counties to save money from having to purchase space in a newspaper, which winds up “throwing the public’s right to know under the bus.”

John Bussian

Bussian predicted that other counties would get added to SB 200 as it went through the legislative process. He recalled how in 2017, more than a dozen counties wound up on a bill that initially only applied to Guilford County. He called that a “failed pilot project,” evidenced by a bill in the current session called “Fair treatment for journalism/Guilford County” sponsored by Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Guilford) that would repeal that provision allowing the county to post its notices online.

“There has always been a requirement to publish in print because of the people who can’t afford or don’t choose to read their news and legal notices online,” Bussian said. “So, I’d ask you to vote against a favorable report.”

Lawmakers were unmoved. They advanced the bill to the Committee on State and Local Government — but not before Sen. Danny Britt (R-Hoke, Scotland, Robeson) successfully proposed an amendment that added Robeson County to the bill.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.