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Move is afoot to make government less open

Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw said a mouthful with just 13 words on Tuesday.

“I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”

It was no coincidence that Tucker’s silencing of an N.C. newspaper publisher – heard by at least three people who were there – came just after he railroaded a bill through his committee that would let government operate in more secrecy.

The legislation, Senate Bill 287, would allow certain local governments to stop notifying the public about crucial government activities in the local newspaper. The governments could instead just post legal notices in the bowels of their websites, where few people are likely to see them. (Do you go to http://charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/countymanagersoffice/openmeck/meckconnect/pages/default.aspx often? Neither do we.)

Your neighborhood about to be annexed? A zoning change that could alter the nature of your block? The government planning a big wastewater project nearby? State law requires the government to run legal notices in the newspaper, which reaches the largest audience in most communities.

That would change under the bill Tucker’s committee passed Tuesday and which could be on the Senate floor as soon as today. (We guess it passed committee; the voice vote was darn close and Tucker refused a request to then take a roll call vote. Just trust him, we suppose.)

Here’s why this is a bad bill: A check of 20 N.C. cities in 2011 found that the local newspaper’s website attracted audiences 65 times larger than the local municipal website. In Charlotte, the Observer’s website attracted an audience 16 times bigger than the Charlotte-Mecklenburg government site. That’s not an insult to the government websites. But it is a reminder that newspapers and their websites are in the mass communication business; municipal governments are not.

So the best way to ensure that a government acts openly is not to let it hide public notices on municipal sites.

It’s true newspapers have a financial interest in keeping the public notices. At the Observer, though, they provide only about 1 percent of the paper’s total advertising revenue. The number would be higher at most smaller papers.

The municipal governments argue they could save taxpayer money with the change. They might save little after hiring all the web managers and technicians needed to keep the public notices online and up to date and in compliance with the law.

For us, though, it’s about transparent government. We believe this bill and similar ones will face a tough road in the legislature, where many Republicans are cautious about giving government more power and letting it function in the dark. Republican Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington, for instance, said it well in the Star News:

“Whenever officials and bureaucrats line up to tell you that they want to save you money by obscuring their activities, you should be wary.”

The current law has been in place for decades, put there to avoid the appearance of backroom dealing. It has worked well.

Rather than getting the public notices to smaller audiences, the legislature should force newspapers to get them to larger ones. House Bill 723, sponsored by six Republicans and one Democrat, does that. It caps how much newspapers can charge governments for the ads, and requires them to run the ads online as well as in print at no extra charge.

That’s an improvement. Because when government is making plans that affect you, there’s no need for quiet.

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