State Rep. Marilyn Avila, a four-term legislator from North Raleigh, recently received the N.C. Press Association’s First Amendment Award. The award, which is not given every year, honors a non-journalist who has stood up for open government.
Avila spoke several times on the House floor last year against bills that would allow public agencies to advertise meetings and hearings on their websites and not in newspapers, as is now required. Local governments have complained about the cost of purchasing public notices. Avila supported a compromise that would cut the cost of repeat notices and require newspapers to post all public notices online.
The matter was hotly debated, reflecting the dislike some legislators have for the larger newspapers in the state. Avila urged legislators to set those feelings aside.
She said governments need to inform the public of meetings and that publication in newspapers and their websites was the best way to do that. Newspaper readership typically is five to 10 times that of local government websites. Many people, especially the elderly and those in rural areas, don’t have access to the Internet, she said. Avila told House members that their vote “is going to tell the citizens of North Carolina how important you think they are as participants in their own government.”
Todd Allen, owner and publisher of The Wake Weekly, nominated Avila for the award. Allen considers himself “a conservative who understands free-market capitalism.” He told me, “The legislation she stopped would have strengthened the government’s power and control while decreasing the awareness of the public.”
Allen estimates income from these public notices is less than 2 percent of his revenue and probably not even 1 percent. That’s in line with The News & Observer’s revenue from these public notices. Some smaller papers receive a larger share of their revenue from the notices.
In stating her case, Avila, former chairwoman of the Wake Republican Party, faced strong opposition from Republican leaders of her chamber, including House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Tillis is smart and capable. He had a successful career in business and was elected speaker after only two terms in the House.
He also plays hardball, as the N.C. Association of Educators learned in 2011 when Tillis didn’t know his microphone was on. “We just want to give them a little taste of what’s about to come,” he said during a Republican caucus, referring to a bill that would have prevented the NCAE, which has helped Democrats, from deducting members’ dues directly from paychecks.
Tillis’ deep public involvement in the public notices debate last year was unusual. In a move rarely taken by a speaker of the House, Tillis attended committee debate on the public-notice issue so he could line up Republican members to vote against the Press Association.
Later that day, he was upset about a photograph of him, taken in the House chamber, that was published in The N&O. Tillis left the speaker’s dais, where he is expected to be neutral, and took a seat in the House. During debate, he moved from desk to desk among House members with his laptop, showing the photograph from newsobserver.com. Then he rose to speak against an amendment from Avila supported by the Press Association. The amendment passed.
Tillis walks an ethical fine line when he seeks to use legislation to punish those he doesn’t like. I wanted to interview Tillis about the notices issue but could not reach him Thursday or Friday.
Decide on merits
Reasonable people can disagree about the public notices requirement. Some lawmakers are sincere in wanting to give local governments more options. Others want to hurt newspapers. They’ve told representatives of the Press Association, including me, that their vote would depend on the coverage they get.
The issue is alive for this year’s legislative session. It should be decided on its merits, not because a legislator doesn’t like coverage. That’s not too much to ask.
I’ll let Avila have the last word. During floor debate last year on the public-notices issue, Avila said: “There does seem to be an ulterior motive driven by the natural tension that exists between government and the press, as has been reflected lately on some recent exchanges here in the General Assembly. To legislate anything here based on pettiness or paranoia, seeking revenge, belittles the positions that we hold.”
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @john_drescher