By Wendy Byerly Wood
May 14, 2014
We have an unusual request for state lawmakers when they convene in Raleigh today: Slay the zombie.
A bad bill that would make government less open and the public less informed could re-emerge as the North Carolina General Assembly opens its 2014 short session. Supporters of the public’s right to know put Senate Bill 287 six feet under — or so it seemed — last July. But until the biennial session comes to a close, the undead bill remains a threat.
SB 287 would allow local governments in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties to take public notices out of newspapers and hide them on obscure official websites. Supporters tout the legislation as a cost-saving measure, since agencies pay to advertise the notices in newspaper classifieds. But the money they’d save comes at too high a price.
Many North Carolinians don’t have home high-speed Internet access. Bill sponsors Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, and Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, must be OK with keeping tens of thousands of people in the dark when it comes to the special meetings, public hearings and proposed land transfers that are advertised in government notices. We’re not OK with that.
A compromise amendment that would limit the costs newspapers charge for public notices passed in the closing days of last year’s regular session. But before the gavel’s final tap, a conference committee stripped out the amendment, bringing the zombie back to life.
For those who are online, most don’t check their county or city government’s website on a frequent basis. The sites are largely static, a repository for ordinances, zoning rules and employee contact information that doesn’t tend to change too often.
Public notices already are available on newspaper websites for those who prefer to get their news online. The bill doesn’t modernize the notification process by putting new information on the Web. Instead, it seeks to take public notices off popular sites that are updated daily and bury them in a bureaucratic data dump.
The bill had considerable support, and we’d like to think many lawmakers were simply misguided. But some backers who have locked horns with the North Carolina Press Association seemed bent on passing the bill as a way to punish newspapers — even if that means hurting the public they’ve sworn to serve.
Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, shouted down Goldsboro News-Argus publisher Hal Tanner III during an April 2013 committee hearing on the bill. Tanner was trying to explain how SB 287 would make government less open, but Tucker was having none of it.
“I am the senator,” he interrupted. “You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”
Those words speak volumes. Tucker didn’t seem to care how the bill would affect ordinary people. He wasn’t even willing to listen.
Surry County isn’t included in the bill, so the public notice process wouldn’t change locally — at least not right away. If supporters of this shortsighted legislation get a two-county foothold, however, it won’t be long before we’re faced with the same threat of an information blackout.
We call on our local legislators to continue the fight to keep public notices where the public can find them.