RALEIGH — The latest legislative attempt to let all North Carolina local governments post required legal notices on their websites instead of the newspaper is advancing despite worries by media representatives that it will limit public information access and harm bottom lines.
A Senate measure clearing two committees this week would allow cities and counties to post items online such as zoning and annexation proposals, vendor contracts and public hearings if a local government body approves an ordinance allowing such electronic publication. A full Senate vote could come early next week.
For generations, newspapers have been the mandated source to view these announcements. A handful of local governments have received authority from the General Assembly since 2003 to use electronic notice for public hearings. But cities and counties statewide that cumulatively spend millions of dollars annually on the legal advertising have welcomed an easier cost-saving alternative.
The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners and N.C. League of Municipalities back the measure introduced by Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, who said Thursday the proposal reflects the continued shift from the printed page to the electronic page for information.
"The future is websites and we all know that. That is the way of the future and we just want to get the public informed," Wade told the Senate Rules Committee. "Almost everyone we know has a cellphone, or they can go into a library and certainly go online and get the public notices."
Previous bills to shift more of these notices online this decade have stalled as the state's newspapers have opposed the change. John Bussian with the North Carolina Press Association told the committee the measure would essentially eliminate the public's right to know what their local governments are doing. Many people, especially in rural areas, lack reliable internet access, Bussian said.
"The option effectively means that every time a city or a county is given the choice between spending money in a newspaper or putting the notice on the website, it's going to pick the low-cost option," he said.
The future of some community newspapers could be threatened by the loss of legal advertising, said Todd Allen, the publisher of three weekly papers in Wake and Franklin counties. While Allen estimated the advertising comprises roughly 5 percent of his papers' budgets, it's a larger portion for other publishers, he told another committee Wednesday.
Bussian urged senators to back a competing Senate bill the association has supported for years that wouldn't eliminate the newspaper mandate. It would provide a 15 percent cost break on advertising rates for local governments that are required to publish repeat notices. Alamance County Representative Steve Ross is a sponsor of the competing bill. A similar measure passed the House by a wide margin two years ago. It also would require newspapers to post government notices on their own websites for free on the same day the notice is published in print.
Wade's bill offered the similar advertising discounts. The bill also offers a new twist compared to her previous efforts by allowing counties to charge fees for posting on their own websites foreclosure notices and other notices by the state or other local governments. Half of the proceeds from those fees would go to local school boards to supplement teacher pay.