An N.C. House of Representatives judiciary committee approved two bills last month that focused on changing local government requirements for publishing public notices in a number of counties. These public notices catalog government activity from budget hearings, land-use changes, property transfers, upcoming traffic construction and more.
House Bill 35 and House Bill 51 would allow local governments to publish legal notices on their websites instead of requiring them to be posted in newspapers. If signed into law, the affected counties would be required to post instructions on how to access the government’s website in order to view new public notices at least once per month for the next year. Although the bills functionally have the same purpose, they were divided into two bills for ease of passage.
The affected counties under H.B. 35 are Burke, Currituck, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford and Stanly. The affected counties under H.B. 51 are Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Gates, Harnett, Hertford, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington.
A similar legislative effort had been attempted in 2017, which ended with Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto after it had passed favorably in both the House and Senate.
“The reason why they do this in two bills is that once a bill applies to 15 counties or more, the bill is no longer a ‘local’ bill and is subject to a different set of legislative rules and the Governor’s veto," Representative Graig Meyer of Orange County said. "Simply put, they’re doing this to make it more likely to pass.”
Local and state-wide newspapers, led by the North Carolina Press Association (NCPA), came out against the legislation.
“This bill would bury public notices on a website that few if any citizens visit and effectively would kill the public’s right to know," Phil Lucey, executive director of the NCPA, said. "Traffic on county websites is infinitesimally small compared to newspaper websites and print circulation.”
Another major concern critics have about the bill stems from a lack of internet access.
“People without internet access will need to find another source for receiving county information or face a form of disenfranchisement," Renee Price, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said.
Lucey said studies show 30 percent of people in North Carolina live where there is no internet service, they can't afford it or won't read online even if it's available.
A recent independent survey sponsored by the NCPA discovered that 6.6 million North Carolinian adults read their local newspaper, and 72 percent of adults read public notices in local print or digital newspapers.
Meyer said H.B. 35 and H.B. 51 must clear three more House committees before reaching the House floor. After that, the bills require Senate approval.
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