N.C. Senate votes to make printed legal ads optional

lbonner@newsobserver.com April 22, 2013 

— The state Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill allowing cities and counties to avoid paying for publication of official legal notices in newspapers by posting the information on government websites instead.

The bill advanced on a 26-23 vote, with supporters saying it will allow local governments to save money. Opponents argued that residents are less likely to find public notices on government websites than in local newspapers, leaving residents less informed.

A final Senate vote is expected Tuesday, before the bill is sent to the House for consideration.

Senate Bill 287 would apply to about a dozen jurisdictions, including the counties of Mecklenburg, Guilford, and most of Wake. Newspapers publish lists of delinquent taxpayers, zoning notices, new ordinances and other legal ads in print and on their websites. Legal ads are a vital source of revenue for small, free newspapers.

Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Cary Republican, and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the counties and towns covered in the legislation asked to be included.

Others said the bill would hurt the small papers that readers count on for community news.

Most people don’t get their news from national or regional papers, but turn to small papers for articles about local government, Little League, church functions, service clubs, and local businesses, said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat. She described articles from the Chatham Record about a chicken plant closing, the opening of a county courthouse, and local farmers gathering endangered honeybees.

The public will be less informed if they have to rely on government websites for notices, she said.

“How many people, including us, browse our local government websites?” she asked.

The bill’s supporters said local governments, freed from paying newspaper charges, would be able to give readers more information on their own websites. And Sen. Bob Rucho, contested the claim that people pay attention to legal ads in newspapers. “Nobody reads that part,” he said. “Let’s be frank about it.”

A few senators argued that some newspaper readers don’t use the internet, or don’t have easy access to it.

“In rural North Carolina, we don’t have the accessibility to get the internet connections that we need,” said Sen. Michael Walters, a Robeson County Democrat. “Yes, some of us still love paper.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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