This just in: Your right to know what your government is doing now depends on WHERE you live.
That’s what House Bill 193 would do, strip important public notices from newspapers only in the largest cities and counties in North Carolina, and hide them on obscure government web sites that are harder to crack than the DaVinci Code. Why? Only Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam knows for sure. He says often and to anyone who will listen that he loves newspapers. Says he reads five of them a day. Has nothing against them. That’s why it’s so interesting that he has, three times now, recast a bill that would put these notices only on government web sites. These are ads that real people care about and look for in the newspaper. They are generally called public notices – they can be anything from a tiny notice of an upcoming hearing, to a scheduled forum on a proposed government project in your neighborhood, to those very large ads you see in big cities listing folks who have not paid their property taxes. These ads have run safely and reliably in newspapers for some 70 years – since the government itself mandated that public notices need to be where the public actually NOTICES. Lawmakers of yesteryear also knew that it’s just bad public policy to let the fox to guard the henhouse. They did not, apparently, believe that only folks in big cities and counties should be required to go hunt for information that the rest of the state will see, as always, in their local paper. Stam’s first attempt to take these notices away from the citizens was to impose this bill statewide. But that didn’t get far because hardly anybody supported it. He tried again – cutting the size of towns and counties affected and exempting Davie and Johnston counties for some unknown reason. He hurriedly withdrew that version two weeks ago when it became clear the House Judiciary I Committee, which was reviewing the bill, is composed of many folks who think their constituents have a right to know what’s going on in their own communities. The third and current version, which the committee will review again this Thursday, targets only the largest counties and cities. That includes Stam’s own county, the one his constituents elected him to protect. Stam says this is a great way to save governments money. If they can run their own ads, they don’t have to pay newspapers to do it. He says money will be saved but has presented no evidence of how much. He says government web sites enjoy high traffic and devoted fans. He has not backed that up with evidence, or contradicted information that shows newspaper web sites in those counties see many, many times more unique visitors than government sites get. And let’s be honest – how often, exactly, do you surf to your local government web site? Is there any reason for you to go there unless you are hopping mad your garbage was not picked up or your water was shut off or … uh oh – there’s a major government project being built in your backyard and you never saw any notice of public hearings about it? If you live in Wake or Mecklenburg or Buncombe or a handful of other unlucky counties, that might be your fate. If you’re a Greensboro resident, for example, celebrate the fact your city still can place notices in the newspaper you see every day, but Guilford County under this weirdly drawn bill, will put all of its info on the web. Check this out for yourself. Read House Bill 193 – it’s available on the web via the NC Legislature web site, and call or e-mail your local state representative. Ask questions. Ask why your government is making it harder for you to know what it’s doing. Defend your right to know what your government is doing in your name. Because you count – no matter WHERE you live.