Off and on this past legislative session, we’ve written about the battle to keep public notices in newspapers.
It has seemed that every year, for a while, there’s been an effort by certain municipalities to be relieved of the requirement to publish notices anywhere else other than their own websites.
Under current law, town and county governments must publish notices in newspapers. They can, of course, still put them on their own websites.
But former lawmakers understood that asking politicos to police themselves, while having no additional oversight, was a recipe for ne’er-do-wellism.
It’s a little like asking the general public to report on their own income for tax purposes.
Joking aside, the IRS doesn’t allow that — hence the use of W-2s, 1099s and other third-party reporting tools.
As anyone who has ever forgotten to pay taxes knows, the penalty for not getting it right with the IRS hurts. And they have a long arm to make it keep hurting.
Unless you’re a White House aide or something.
With legal notices in North Carolina, however, there is no penalty if a town or county “forgets” to publish them according to the law.
There’s no fine or jail time assigned if politicians play hanky panky with keeping the public up to date.
The only way they’d get as much as a slap on the wrist is if a private citizen or business spends hard-earned cash to hire a lawyer and drag a case into court.
If a judge finds the government guilty, there is no punishment, except a (hopefully) stern, “Don’t do that again.”
This past legislative session, certain representatives waged, perhaps, the hardest fought battle to date to assume total control of public information.
What it really came down to was certain folks unhappy with certain newspapers’ coverage and wanting to get revenge.
Representative Marilyn Avila (Wake-District 40) recognized what was at stake and gave a vigorous defense on the House floor during debate over allowing DENR (North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to stop publishing notices:
“We’re exempting ourselves from laws that we ask the private sector to obey.
“When we pass laws and taxes and regulations and we hear the private sector yell, ‘It’s too expensive,’ our response is, ‘That’s your cost of doing business.’
“Well, members, our cost of doing business in public notifications to our citizens is a cost that we should incur.
“We’re setting a precedent that is not good, in policy, as far as keeping in touch with our citizens. We want DENR to exempt itself from notification.
“What’s next, transportation? Education? Commerce?
“Are our citizens going to have to bookmark every website for every department in every division in government and check it every day to figure out what we’re up to down here?
“This illustrates more clearly than any other argument, the direction for this legislation is to keep the current requirements, with cost adjustments, and expand it to reach out to those that want electronic notification, not force all citizens to a limited means of communication that they might not have access to or ability to use.
“How many of you have large rural areas where that access is not available? How many of you have sections in your urban areas where that’s not affordable and they do not have access? ...
“It’s no secret we’re in town and the doors are open for us to come in and speak, yet we are trying to introduce limitation on the notices for public hearings that will impact people’s lives.
“They won’t know the meetings are taking place. They won’t be able to walk through the doors and make their views known. I don’t think that’s what we want to do.
“The stated goal here tonight is to save money. That may be part of it. However, there does seem to be an ulterior motive driven by the natural tension that exists between government and the press as has been reflected lately on some recent exchanges here in the General Assembly.
“To legislate anything here based on pettiness, paranoia or seeking revenge, belittles the positions that we hold.
“As the ultimate source of all government funding, whether it’s federal, state or local, through their taxes or through their fees, our citizens are entitled to — and should demand — the fundamental obligation of openness and honesty from the people they elect.”
The end result, thanks in large part to Avila, and others, is that legislation that would remove the current protections was either stopped or put on hold until the short session begins in May of next year.
For that, we say, “Thank you.”
The following legislators truly went to bat for the public, to keep public notices, publicly accessible:
•Chris Malone (Wake-35) — who introduced legislation to protect public notices.
Also fighting for the public were Jim Fulghum (Wake-49), Ted Davis (New Hanover-19), Carl Ford (Cabarrus, Rowan-76), Edgar Starnes (Caldwell-87), W.A. Winkie Wilkins (Granville, Person-2), and Tim Moore (Cleveland-111).