Public notices bill debate leads to questionable vote
By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 21, 2013 1:50 AM
A bill that is scheduled to come before the N.C. Senate this week is sparking controversy after its contentious movement from the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Senate Bill 287 would give some local governments the choice to put legal notices on their websites rather than advertising them in newspapers.
Proponents say it is a cost-saving options for cash-strapped communities.
Opponents worry that it would be an obstruction to open government and could be used as a threat to influence coverage of local governments.
The controversy stems from the vote itself -- and a discussion after the meeting with severa newspaper publishers and committee Co-Chairman Tommy Tucker of Union County.
The publishers disagreed with the voice vote taken to move the bill to the Senate floor -- and an abrupt adjournment when a call was made by another committee member for a show of hands to clarify the vote.
Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, crossed party lines to side with Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, and the other four Democrats on the committee to vote against the bill.
"My district is mostly rural, and we have a lot of elderly people, and I just don't think that they would find notices published anywhere else," Pate said. 'I mean I don't think that they would go to a website to look it up and that sort of thing. That is my feeling on it."
Davis agreed with the publishers that it was difficult to determine how the voice vote had gone. But, like Pate, said voice votes are how business is conducted in Senate committees.
"There is no recorded vote," he said. "I guess you have to be kind of agile (to count the votes)."
Davis said that while there is an evolution in technology that he decided to vote against the bill.
"I listened to the concerns and the debate and just felt compelled to vote against it," he said. "I was concerned about making sure that residents were able to be notified and informed."
Committee clerk Kaye Culberson, who works in office of committee Co-chairman Sen. Jim Davis, said she was only authorized to release what is in the official minutes of the meeting. Those minutes show that there 13 members present and that seven voted for the measure and six voted no.
It does not indicate how the senators voted.
Those numbers are disputed by John Bussian, counsel to the N.C. Press Association.
Senate Bill 287 was introduced as a local bill for Guilford County, Greensboro, High Point and Morrisville. The committee substitute bill added Burke, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Mecklenburg, Swain, Union and Wake counties and any municipality located wholly with those counties, and Cary.
Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird said the limited number of locales named in the bill is just the first step. She worries others will follow suit -- and that is why she voted against the bill.
"It is just the camel's nose under the tent because it will spread," she said. "I spoke against it. I love my local newspaper."
Ms. Kinnaird said there are 12 small town newspapers in her district -- papers where people turn to read about Little League, church and community.
"I know how much people read them cover to cover," she said. "If they go under, it will be a real problem. Local papers provide a community service. That would be lost."
Local government websites are not going to provide that community service, she said.