Editorial originally published April 26 in The Hendersonville Lightning
Hendersonville – The Hendersonville Lightning ran legal advertisements six times notifying the public of the sale of county-owned property on Sixth Avenue. Two bidders raised the price by $114,000 over three months’ time.
A few weeks ago, the Times-News ran a public notice about a sewage spill at the Brevard wastewater treatment plant. The Lightning has run legal notices about a special use permit, rezoning and road closing for Hendersonville High School. And we ran a 24-page listing of delinquent taxpayers.
Newspapers, in other words, provide a vital form of communication to the public about what elected bodies and local and state agencies are doing with public money, what changes neighbors may see on nearby property, what roads may be closed and what industries may receive tax breaks.
A bill that the state Senate passed this week (SB 343) would do away with public notices and would also allow law firms and estate executors to place legal ads on city and county websites, which no one visits, instead of in printed newspapers and newspaper websites, which are widely read.
No one except the most devoted follower of government actions would see the notices published on a city or county website. In a newspaper, neighbors are likely to run across a rezoning notice. Having your name printed as a tax deadbeat in a newspaper read by friends, family and business associates is a much more powerful deterrent to non-payers than the hollow threat of publication on a county website.
Unfortunately, Henderson County’s delegation, with the notable exception of freshman Rep. Cody Henson, is proving that it is out of touch with the needs of small businesses that report the news, support robot-proof jobs and serve their constituents. Freshman Sen. Chuck Edwards has gulped down the Kool-Aid from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Trudy Wade, that the Internet is the “future.” State Rep. Chuck McGrady, usually a strong proponent of transparency, is a sponsor of a companion bill in the House that also eliminates public notices.
It’s hard to believe that Edwards and McGrady are unaware that their own district is home to one of the most successful print startups in recent years anywhere. It’s called the Hendersonville Lightning. Which, by the way, has been called the “future of local print journalism” by Forbes magazine.
Public notices in newspapers are efficient and affordable for local government. They reach people. They connect the business of government to the people elected bodies are supposed to represent. The reason none of that matters is that this bill, year after year, is not about the public. It’s about economic reprisal by a few legislators against the editorial boards of large metros.
Legislators ought to see these bad bills for what they are and come down on the side of the people. They ought to preserve public notices in newspapers and protect the public’s right to know.
Editors Note: Bill Moss and I fought hard to provide some clarity to the legislators who are proponents of Senate Bill SB 343. We were after some transparency as to their thinking. Many of them discussed the ‘savings’ they could pass on to taxpayers due to these changes. I requested that Senator Edwards provide specific details of such savings, since it seemed to be an important part of his argument. Never was I able to see any such details. Those savings are pie in the sky.
It is noteworthy that over 40% of the counties in North Carolina – which encompasses over 4 million citizens and is the second largest in our nation – are in rural counties. These people often do not rely on the internet for their news. In addition, we, and most of the smaller newspapers, are posting the notices on our websites which, when combined with the newspapers’ readership, have far more visibility than government websites which no one goes to. When is the last time you checked in on a government website?