Editorial: Public notices, where the public will notice

Apr. 13, 2013 @ 03:54 PM

In the next few days, the Durham County ABC Board will hold its regular meeting at 3620 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners will hold public hearings on proposed development-ordinance changes, and the Durham County Board of Adjustment will hold public hearings on several cases.

Those meetings, and many more like them every month, are the routine but vital stuff of the public’s business.

You might find out about them in a variety of ways – your neighborhood’s email discussion group, or a brief news item.

But you know without a doubt you can learn about them by scanning the legal advertisements in the newspaper. That’s state law – public bodies are required to publish public notices of their meetings, new ordinances, public hearings – all information the public has the right to know and the government has an obligation to publish.

But if some state legislators have their way, your fellow citizens in several places may no longer be able to depend on those notices being published where the public will notice them.

Senate Bill 287 would allow county, town and city governments in several counties – including Guilford, Union and Wake – to post those notices only on their own websites, and exempt them from the requirement to publish them in a newspaper of general circulation.

This is a déjà-vu legislative fight.  Similar local bills have been introduced in virtually every legislative session for nearly a decade. Except for a bill covering few small municipalities in Wake County, legislators committed to the public’s right to know have defeated them. Three years ago, a proposed statewide bill died in committee.

This session, the press association has offered a compromise bill, HB723, that would require newspapers to post legal notices to their websites at the same time they are published in print, and mandating a discount for repeat publications. We support those ideas as a far better way to serve the public.

SB287 undercuts fundamental principals of government transparency. Few people will be browsing government websites to find public notices – and many thousands of the state’s residents don’t even have affordable, easy access to Internet service. 

And who would monitor the governments to be sure they were complying? Allowing governments to post these notices only in a venue they oversee and control is a classic case of assigning the fox to guard the hen house.

Fortunately, our local Senate delegation has been formidably behind open government and they are to be praised for that. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat, is a member of the State and Local Government Committee considering the bill, and in a committee meeting last week she determinedly defended the need to require publication despite hostile committee leadership.

The public will be best served if she and like-minded legislators prevail over those who would erode your right to know what your government is doing.

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