If you’re a regular reader of the Salisbury Post, you’ve seen advertisements in the paper from time to time that carry the Rowan County seal, or the name and seal of one of our municipalities. These are public notices about local government functions — meetings, hearings, overdue tax listings and the like. The state has long required that such matters be advertised in local newspapers to make sure local government lets citizens know what’s going on.
Some legislators believe the need to inform the public in this manner has gone away. I disagree.
On Tuesday, a committee of the state Senate approved a bill to allow local governments in some areas to post information on their own websites rather than publish it in the local paper. As recently amended, the bill applies only to Guilford, Mecklenburg and Burke counties, the cities of Greensboro and High Point, and the town of Morrisville. But citizens across the state should be concerned about this change of direction.
Public information should be posted where the public is most likely to see it. That’s in newspapers and on newspaper websites. Not on seldom-visited government websites.
The committee, under Waxhaw Sen. Tommy Tucker’s leadership as co-chair, approved the bill on a hazy voice vote that didn’t indicate a majority supporting the bill, in the view of publishers at the meeting. By our count of voters present, in fact, we felt we would have won the vote.
Many of my associates in this business believe these legislators have an ax to grind with local newspapers because we watch them as closely as we can and report on things they don’t like sometimes or we don’t write the story the way they would write it. This type of legislation is a way to inflict revenge. After attending the committee meeting Tuesday, I am inclined to agree. When Senator Tucker was approached by a publisher and asked why there was only a voice vote and not a roll-call, he replied, “I am the senator, you are the citizen, you need to be quiet.” This is the beginning of the fox watching the henhouse, and I fear that this bill is a mechanism for governmental misbehavior.
Backers say this is a local bill that only offers the option and does not require ads move out of newspapers. I say that this will give governments the option of threatening newspapers — if we don’t offer favorable coverage, they will take notices out of newspapers. Bad government, bad public policy. Governments legislated these advertising rules themselves years ago to avoid suggestions of back room deals and sweetheart bidding. They need to remember that.
Newspapers have offered a compromise bill, H723, in acknowledgement that money is tight. It calls for all public notices to go on newspaper websites for free and caps what newspapers can charge for the notices in print. The reluctance of some legislators to even talk about reaching an accord is baffling at best. The bill is similar to one passed in Florida, crafted by lawmakers and the Florida Press Association working together to make sure all public notices get wide coverage in print and online. Why would our legislators ignore the compromise? Is it because a compromise won’t be punitive? I’m beginning to think so.
If anyone knows how widely newspapers are read in print and online, ask the lawmakers who were at Tuesday’s committee hearing. Co-chair Tucker mentioned the “blistering editorial” he had just read about this issue in his local paper. Not long after he mentioned that, he cut short his own colleague, Sen. Michael Walters of Proctorville who called for a roll call vote on S287. Tucker clearly heard him, but hastily adjourned the meeting and rushed away from the podium, which left me scratching my head and the numerous paid lobbyists for the state’s county commissioners looking smug. What a charade that whole committee meeting was.
Greg Anderson is the publisher of the Salisbury Post.