Under the Dome

New NC law hits newspapers, evades Gov. Cooper’s veto

A new law will allow governments and others in Guilford County to publish public and legal notices on the county’s website, rather than in a newspaper as required under current law.
A new law will allow governments and others in Guilford County to publish public and legal notices on the county’s website, rather than in a newspaper as required under current law. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

A new law will allow governments and others in Guilford County to publish public and legal notices on the county’s website, rather than in a newspaper as required under current law.

A group of Republican House members representing mostly rural counties helped pass Senate Bill 181 on Thursday by a rare one-vote margin. The bill, which passed on a mostly party-line vote in the Senate, now becomes law, because it was a local bill and does not need Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature – thus avoiding another possible veto.

The bill’s language had previously been vetoed by Cooper in another bill. Ten Republican House members voted against the bill, and some argued that it would be a slippery slope and could eventually affect their counties if other counties adopted the policy.

Rep. Josh Dobson, a McDowell County Republican, opposed the bill and said it would have long-term repercussions in counties like his which depend on rural newspapers for information. “For me this issue is not as much about newspapers, as it is about access; access to information, transparency, and the right to know what policies government officials are putting in place on its citizens,” Dobson said.

Rep. Jonathan Jordan, an Ashe County Republican, also opposed the bill and said it “has statewide implications.”

“We have a lot of aging population in our rural areas that do read the local, community, home paper,” Jordan said. “Up in my area our small-town papers are having the highest readership and web visits ever. And I’ll put up one of those local papers, their web hits, against our county government website any day, any day. I imagine that my law office probably accounts for half the hits on our county website on any given day.”

The vote was 58-57, with 12 Republicans voting against the bill.

In the Senate, it passed 30-16. Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican who had championed the earlier versions of the bill, said the latest version is like the bill she first introduced five years ago to address legal and public notices.

"We have tried over a series of years, to try to get in place some use of electronic notices," Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, said in a committee meeting Wednesday of his support for the bill.

In the same committee meeting, only one person spoke against the bill: Daniel Finnegan, the publisher of the News & Record, one of the newspapers in Guilford County that will be directly impacted by the bill. He represented a group of newspapers in the county that were all in opposition to the bill.

"We do have all of these notices available electronically on our website," he said. "We have more than 25 percent of the county that does not have internet access. So I think for transparency's sake these are important notices for the public. I feel it is wrong to take them out of newspapers."

A legislative staff member explained that the county board of elections can also adopt the same ordinance for notices to be put on its website in lieu of in the newspaper if it chose to.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch

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