Public notices need to be where the public notices.
But state legislators and a handful of local government agents want to take legally required public notices advertisements that tell you about major road closings, competitive bids being sought, elections scheduled, important public hearings set, etc. out of the newspapers that have run them for upwards of 200 years, and hide them in plain sight.
They want the public not only to hunt for notices on obscure government websites, they also expect the public to somehow just know that they need to go and look for them. Unless you ask for an email alerting you that a public notice is filed, you won’t have any idea anything is happening. Most adults read newspapers or check them out online. Newspapers specialize in bringing the news to you. Let’s face it, most government agencies are not known for being all that forthcoming.
And if you have no Internet or broadband access, as is the case in many parts of North Carolina, good luck connecting with these government-run websites. If you are not computer literate, if you are poor, if you live somewhere with no free access to Internet or access at all you will effectively lose your right to know.
If that doesn’t scare you, consider this: If this sort of legislation passes and expands to a statewide level, government will police itself, deciding what you need to know … and what they don’t want you to know.
History tells us this is bad government, bad public policy – just a very bad idea to anyone who values transparency.
Government unchecked is government unchained.
Who will be there to speak for you and me? One cannot count on the government standing tall for the right to know. Case in point: A state senator recently was so incensed at being questioned by a North Carolina Press Association member publisher about a committee vote that sent a public notice bill to the Senate floor, he blurted out: “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”
If an elected government representative will say that to someone who publishes a newspaper and has the wherewithal to tell the world, what will he say to you when you learn, one day, that the highway on which your family restaurant is located is closed to build a bypass? A public notice in your newspaper would have alerted you.
What will he tell you about that property down the street from your home being rezoned as commercial? Surprise! He’d tell you that you should have known look on a government website. They’re pumping wastewater into the river? Well, it’s up to you to somehow divine that such a thing is about to happen. Property taxes have gone up? Go hunt for the notice that would have alerted you.
Governments say they want to run notices on their own websites, with no public oversight, to save money. We understand that saving money is in everyone’s interest. That’s why the North Carolina Press Association has teamed with some smart legislators to propose a bipartisan bill (HB 723) that cuts newspaper prices for these ads and offers to post every notice on a newspaper website with a free statewide website provided at no cost to government or taxpayers.
Everybody wins — governments save money and the public sees notices that could change lives. Newspapers remain strong and continue to defend transparency and government openness against all comers.
Public notices exist because the public has the right to know what government is doing in its name. Don’t let special interests take your rights away. Call and email your legislators and tell them YOU want to know what’s going on! Tell them to support House Bill 723!
Beth Grace is the Executive Director of the NC Press Association.