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Rep. Warren’s bill could remove public notices from newspapers in 14 counties

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican serving state House District 76, last week introduced a bill that would allow a slew of counties to publish public notices on their websites rather than in newspapers.

House Bill 35 is sponsored by two other Republican representatives, Deputy Majority Whip Bobby Hanig and Jay Adams of Catawba County. In addition to Rowan and Catawba counties, the bill would apply to Cabarrus, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Jackson, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rutherford, Swain and Stanly counties.

Warren told the Post the intent of the bill is to alleviate the financial burdens placed on governmental entities and offset their revenue losses amid the pandemic. He added that the bill would provide a “convenience factor” as public citizens could visit a county’s website to see public notices.

Attempts at such a measure aren’t new. Warren said similar efforts have been made throughout almost all sessions during his decade-long tenure in the state House.

The furthest such a measure made it through the General Assembly is HB 205 in 2017, which called to “modernize publication of legal advertisements and notices,” and allowed Guilford County to opt to post such notices on its website for a fee. The bill was passed along party lines in the House, with 55 Republicans, including Warren, and five Democrats in favor of the bill. Meanwhile, 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans voted against it.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ultimately vetoed the bill, likening it to a jab at the media.

“(Time) and time again, this legislature has used the levers of big government to attack important institutions in our state who may disagree with them from time to time,” Cooper said in his veto message. “Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of that misguided philosophy meant to specifically threaten and harm the media. Legislation that enacts retribution on the media threatens a free and open press, which is fundamental to our democracy.”

Warren said in 2011, he voted against a similar effort because it was too premature. Today, he argues, internet availability is less of an issue, and that every piece of legislation will include a subset of people who are unable to “conform to the policy.”

“Now, 10 years later, it turns out to be a good bill,” Warren said.

But H.B. 35, he said, includes detailed research of which newspapers are still family-owned and small, adding that outlets like the Post and Stanly News and Press in Stanly County are affiliated of Boone Newspapers, a company with headquarters in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, area and Natchez, Mississippi.

“Any business when confronted with a challenge like this has to learn how to conform and adjust to changes,” Warren said.

Warren added that this bill includes stipulations for counties to use a centralized website for notices, ranging from having sufficient staff to maintain the website and required affidavits and providing notice of how public notices are published. It also doesn’t require counties to adopt such a policy.

Guilford County currently has such a measure in place thanks to legislation passed in 2017. At that time, it was introduced as a local bill to avoid a gubernatorial veto. Senate Bill 181 passed the House by only a single vote but by a wider margin in the Senate.

The Post was unable to reach Guilford County clerk staff for information regarding the amount of revenue saved since implementing the legislation.

Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, said such an effort allows counties and governmental entities to “bury notices deep into a website that no one would see.” Additionally, rather than notifying the public, it puts the burden on local citizens to seek out that information.

“Public notices aren’t government subsidies,” Lucey said. “We’re providing a service and we’re paid for that service. Especially now, it’s a time for more transparency, not less.”

The 2021 NCPA Market Study, conducted by Coda Ventures LLC, a market researcher in Tennessee, showed that 6.6 million North Carolinians rely on print and digital newspapers to receive their news, and that 72% read public notices in print or digital newspapers. Further, the study found 86% of North Carolinians cite local newspapers and newspaper websites as their “most trusted” source for public notices as opposed to relying on government and other sources.

Additionally, local newspapers and newspaper websites are “relied on more often” than any other source by North Carolinians seeking information about their local governments. The study showed 54% turned to local newspapers, while 35% turned to local TV/cable.

The study suggests newspaper readers are more informed citizens and voters as 88% of North Carolina newspaper readers vote in state and national elections, while 85% vote in local, school board or county elections. The study showed 93% of all North Carolinians who contacted local officials to voice concerns about specific issues are newspaper readers, while 63% of newspaper readers indicated they often voice their opinions about local community issues compared to 56% of all North Carolina adults.

In 2017, one month after Moore County published a list of delinquent tax payers, their properties and amounts owed in The Pilot newspaper, the county received nearly $821,000 of the $1.37 million owed, according to a report from the newspaper.

“We see these notices paying for themselves,” Lucey said.

He added that he doesn’t see this effort as a cost-saving measure since funds allocated for publishing public notices only comprise a fraction of county budgets.

An October expenditure report for Rowan County shows that, of the approximate $72,000 allocated for advertising among all county departments in the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, only a little more than $3,000 was spent as of October. Jim Howden, the county’s finance director, said other items can be charged to a department’s advertising account beyond just public notices.

“This is about striking back at newspapers for doing their job of covering the community,” Lucey said. “Newspapers are small businesses as well. And our business is to inform the public.”

And especially amidst the pandemic, newspapers have served as the “lifeline of community news,” Lucey said.

John Carr, publisher of the Post, said without adequate notice many changes that directly affect local citizens will go through without the public knowing until it’s too late.

“We are typically all in favor of saving public money, but not at the cost of keeping the public in the dark on upcoming actions,” Carr said.

He adds that local papers in many small towns are struggling just as much as other local businesses, with a measure like this “almost certainly pushing some over the edge.”

“In the end, the motivation is not as important as the potential outcome,” Carr said. “If you think some elected bodies make questionable decisions now, just wait until no one is watching.”

Though Warren said he’s aware of the NCPA’s stance, he claimed he’s still willing to hear their concerns. Warren anticipates amendments and changes will eventually be attached to the legislation.

Lucey said the NCPA will continue to follow the legislation closely and meet with key legislators. Additionally, members of the NCPA, which are local news organizations, will “educate their readers to the importance of government transparency” to ensure “their counties do not operate in the dark.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246. 

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