05/08/11 — Council approves resolution to OK public notices bill

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Council approves resolution to OK public notices bill

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on May 8, 2011 1:50 AM

The Goldsboro City Council has approved a resolution supporting bills in the General Assembly that would end municipalities' requirement to publish public notices in local newspapers.

The bills, House Bill 472 and Senate Bill 773, move to amend General Statute 1-597, which states that without adequate advertisement in a newspaper, public hearing notices, orders and such have no force or effect.

District 5 Councilman Chuck Allen spoke out about the issue, which was not on the agenda for discussion, and said that it was something the council should discuss.

"These are ads that we legally have to put in the classifieds," he said, adding that the general public wasn't interested in such advertisements unless they were in real estate or looking for foreclosures.

The resolution states that county and city officials are "obligated to be good financial stewards of their taxpayer's dollars," noting that the costs of publishing legal notices in the current fiscal year has exceeded $27,000.

The resolution also addressed the changes in media since G.S. 1-597 was enacted in 1939, which Allen alluded to.

"At the time there was no other way to notify the public. Now we have other avenues," he said, saying he didn't take issue with the publication, but with the mandate. "That's not to say we won't still do it, but we shouldn't be mandated to do it."

The resolution also alleges that public notices published electronically on the city's website are likely to reach "far more" citizens than local newspaper notices.

News-Argus Publisher Hal Tanner III said exactly the opposite is true. He said that municipal websites in general -- and the city's in specific -- are hard to navigate and do not have anywhere near the audience necessary to be sure that the notices get to the most people possible.

But more importantly, the public notices bill is a dangerous step in limiting the public's knowledge of what its government leaders are doing.

"It's really very simple," Tanner said. "The public pays taxes and the city and county spends that public money. One of the best possible ways to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and efficiently is to communicate to as many people as possible about planned spending and plans that affect property values, for example.

"Newspapers and their accompanying websites have the unique ability to reach more people in any community than any city or county website. So, if you are trying to hide bid opportunities, the fact that a landfill or cell tower is being considered for someone's neighborhood, it makes sense to put that information where fewer people will see it."

Tanner also discounted the "saving money" argument, saying that while there might be an upfront reduction in cost, the expenses for taxpayers in the short- and long-term will be much higher.

"Of course it may save a relatively small amount of money on the front end. However, any elected official or city/county employee that uses that line of reasoning is covering up the fact that it will cost more in the future in terms of higher bids on government jobs, additional legal fees to defend the public's outrage over not being informed and will lead to corruption."

Scott Williams, Goldsboro's Information Technology director, said he couldn't speak for all of North Carolina's municipalities, but that there wouldn't be much change for his staff if the bill were signed into law.

"From our standpoint, we already post them," he said. "We're doing that anyway, so it wouldn't be different at all. We post everything that the public may want to see on the website anyway so it wouldn't change anything short of putting up a more prominent page. "It certainly wouldn't cost us anything extra."

Williams said the perception from his department is that the city's websites get a lot of traffic, noting that if certain things aren't on the website, there are usually phone calls from members of the public leading his staff to respond within four to six hours.

Tanner disagreed, saying traffic on government websites is often meager.

"As an experiment, go into a restaurant or to another social gathering and quietly ask two questions, 'Can you tell me the city of Goldsboro's website address?' and 'How are the people that don't have a computer and high-speed Internet access supposed to have access to this information?' I am sure you already know the answer."

Tanner said city residents have already seen what happens when government officials are not watched closely.

"If the public is concerned about the incredible spending that the city's leadership has been pursuing now, just wait until the public is less-informed about how it is spending or plans to spend the public's money if this new bill becomes law. More progressive town and city councils are actually passing resolutions to oppose such moves by big city legislators."

If signed into law, the bill would go into effect Oct. 1.