Bob Ashley: Public notices fight continues

Apr. 20, 2013 @ 07:23 PM

Let me bring you up to date on the fight to keep public notices readily accessible to the public.

Last Sunday, I shared the unfolding efforts in the legislature to lift the requirement local governments publish their notices – of new ordinances, public hearings, proposed annexations and the like – in general circulation newspapers. That’s been the law for decades, and it has served the public well in ensuring basic government actions are in the public eye.

Two weeks ago, the North Carolina Press Association and advocates of transparent government watched mostly voicelessly as a Senate committee chugged down the tracks toward approval of Senate Bill 287. While several proponents were allowed to speak, our side was muffled after one brief presentation against the bill.

This past week, the committee was more polite, if, as it turned out, deceptively so.  Committee co-chair Jim Davis, a tightly wound legislator from Franklin, had run the first meeting with a disdainful dismissiveness of bill opponents.

Last week, an avuncular, rumpled Tommy Tucker from Waxhaw displayed a perhaps overly elaborate graciousness as he allowed three opponents a turn at the lectern.

He then put it to a voice vote and, although it seemed inconclusively close, declared the “yeas” carried. He gaveled the meeting to a close, brushing off a member’s request for a roll call.

Moments later, in an altercation with a newspaper publisher, an angry Tucker was heard (not by me, but by three other witnesses) to say, “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”

As senators were dispersing, another publisher asked a veteran legislative reporter, “Didn’t you think it was close?”

“It wasn’t close if the chairman said it wasn’t,” the reporter answered wryly.

Another day in the sausage factory of law-making.

The bill the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved is up for a Senate vote Monday. The Republican leadership seems full-tilt behind the bill, so it’s going to be tough to stop it.

That said, there’s hardly unanimity for or against on either side of the aisle. Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington, was a vocal opponent two weeks ago in committee. He later wrote in The Times-News newspaper:

“Whenever officials and bureaucrats line up to tell you that they want to save you money by obscuring their activities, you should be wary. In its current form, this bill is a bad deal.”

Of course, Goolsby was absent Tuesday when his “no” vote might have made the difference. Suspicions were he absented himself rather than cross his party leadership. Politics ain’t beanbag, after all.

Four Republicans stepped up to sponsor a compromise bill advocated by the press association. HB723, now before a House Judiciary subcommittee, would require newspapers that publish legal notices to post them on their website, guaranteeing the electronic access the Senate bill’s proponents argue they want. The difference – it would be on websites people are likely to visit, and not controlled by the very people placing the notices, as government websites are.

I’m grateful to two members of our local delegation on the House committee, Valerie Foushee from Orange County and H. M. “Mickey” Michaux of Durham. They support keeping public notices public, and have indicated support of our compromise bill. Rep. Winkie Wilkins of Roxboro, another long-time open-government supporter, has joined sponsors of the bill.

Again last week, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Chapel Hill was an ardent opponent of the Senate bill.

We’re fortunate our delegation has long supported open government and the importance of publishing public notices.

Let them know you appreciate that.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.