LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Legislature threatens public’s right to know
By Bill Moss
The Hendersonville Lightning ran legal advertisements six times notifying the public of the sale of county-owned property on Sixth Avenue. Two bidders raised the price by $114,000 over three months’ time.
A few weeks ago, the Times-News ran a public notice about a sewage spill at the Brevard wastewater treatment plant. The Lightning has run legal notices about a special use permit, rezoning and road closing for Hendersonville High School. And we ran a 24-page listing of delinquent taxpayers.
Newspapers, in other words, provide a vital form of communication to the public about what elected bodies and local and state agencies are doing with public money, what changes neighbors may see on nearby property, what roads may be closed and what industries may receive tax breaks.
A bill that the state Senate passed this week (SB 343) would do away with public notices and would also allow law firms and estate executors to place legal ads on city and county websites, which no one visits, instead of in printed newspapers and newspaper websites, which are widely read.
No one except the most devoted follower of government actions would see the notices published on a city or county website. In a newspaper, neighbors are likely to run across a rezoning notice. Having your name printed as a tax deadbeat in a newspaper read by friends, family and business associates is a much more powerful deterrent to nonpayers than the hollow threat of publication on a county website.
Unfortunately, Henderson County’s delegation, with the notable exception of freshman Rep. Cody Henson, is proving that it is out of touch with the needs of small businesses that report the news, support robot-proof jobs and serve their constituents. Freshman Sen. Chuck Edwards has gulped down the Kool-Aid from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Trudy Wade, that the Internet is the “future.” State Rep. Chuck McGrady, usually a strong proponent of transparency, is a sponsor of a companion bill in the House that also eliminates public notices.
It’s hard to believe that Edwards and McGrady are unaware that their own district is home to one of the most successful print startups in recent years anywhere. It’s called the Hendersonville Lightning. Which, by the way, has been called the “future of local print journalism” by Forbes magazine.
Public notices in newspapers are efficient and affordable for local government. They reach people. They connect the business of government to the people elected bodies are supposed to represent. The reason none of that matters is that this bill, year after year, is not about the public. It’s about economic reprisal by a few legislators against the editorial boards of large metros.
Legislators ought to see these bad bills for what they are and come down on the side of the people. They ought to preserve public notices in newspapers and protect the public’s right to know.