State House legislators want to scale back a controversial Senate plan to end requirements for government legal notices to be published in newspapers – a change that publishers say would harm “the public’s right to know.”
The House Rules Committee made major changes Thursday to Senate Bill 343, which would allow municipal and county governments to publish required public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. Those notices include details about public hearings for new developments and opportunities to bid on government contracts.
The local governments could also host other people’s legal notices on their own websites, charging attorneys and others for legally required announcements about foreclosures, seized property and other proceedings. The revenue from those ads would fund teacher-pay supplements.
Under the House version of the bill, the online-only notices would be a “pilot program,” available only to local governments in four urban counties: Buncombe, Durham, Forsyth and Guilford. Newspapers running legal notices would need to offer discounted rates for notices required to run multiple times, and the bill also sets circulation and other criteria for newspapers to be eligible to publish notices.
“What we’re trying to do is advance the goals of the (Senate bill) sponsor to pass her bill, with acknowledgment that the House had a very different position,” House Rules Chairman David Lewis said, adding that he expects the Senate won’t support the House’s changes, setting up negotiations between the chambers.
Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said the use of urban counties for online-only notices makes sense. “In the urban counties, you’re going to have a lot less likelihood that people are going to read these notices in newspapers,” he said. “That still happens a lot in rural areas.”
Blust also said he supports the new circulation requirements for newspapers that run legal notices. “In Guilford, for some reason the little Jamestown paper suffices legally, and very few people read that,” he said. “Our objective should be to actually inform the public.”
The N.C. Press Association wasn’t present at the committee meeting and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The group had supported an earlier legal notice proposal in the House. That bill would keep current newspaper publication requirements, but the papers would have to post notices on their websites and on a statewide notices website run by the press association, and the newspapers would have to offer a discounted rate for notices published more than once.