Compromise bill on legal notices clears House committee

Headed to the state House floor is a compromise in a yearslong fight over the mandate that government place legal notices in newspapers.

House Bill 156, which a legislative committee backed unanimously on Wednesday, is meant to provide governments some relief on costs while still requiring them to purchase space in newspapers to inform readers about meetings, contracts, rezoning proposals and other information in the public interest.

“This committee vote today was historic,” said John Bussian, legislative counsel to the N.C. Press Association, which supports the bill as a compromise after a decade of fighting other proposals to repeal the requirement.

While governments like the City of Raleigh or Wake County would still have to use newspapers for public notices under this measure, newspapers would have to place those notices on their websites the same day they appear in print, and at no cost.

Newspapers would also have to give the public free access to those web notices, and would have to email them to anyone who requests them.

Additionally, governments would get a 15 percent break on the costs to publish a notice for the second time or more. That may affect newspapers’ revenue, but that’s not the point, said Charlotte Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins.

“It’s about what’s the right thing. It’s about, between online and print, reaching as many people as possible,” she said.

But it comes at a cost, said Casandra Skinner, legislative counsel to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. After surveying county governments statewide, the group determined they collectively spend about $2 million per year on newspaper space, which doesn’t include what municipalities and other government entities pay.

“What the counties are looking for is the option – in lieu of the requirement that they publish in the newspaper, they have the option to either publish on their (government) websites or in the newspaper,” Skinner said.

A bill filed this month by Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican, would allow for that. It would also require governments to mail copies of notices to anyone who has filed a written request, which could cover people who don’t have Internet access or the budget for a newspaper.

But that’s the approach the Press Association has been fighting. It won’t work to give governments the option, Bussian said.

“As a practical matter, if you give them the option, newspapers are out,” he said. “Nobody’s going to spend money to put notices in newspapers, and the public loses out.”

Les High, editor of the News Reporter, a Whiteville-based newspaper, said revenue isn’t the object. He noted newspapers have together spent “millions of dollars” on legal battles for government records. “And it comes straight off our bottom line,” High said.

According to the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Raleigh Republican, the newspapers conceded to give free website space for public notices.

More and more people are getting their information from digital platforms, she added.

As that continues, there may be grounds one day to detach governments from newsprint, Avila told the committee. She called the bill “a step in the right direction.”

Today, though, it would be “a step too far too soon,” she said.

The bill would have to win support from the full House and Senate before it could become law.

Benjamin Brown writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com