WAKE COUNTY — A Democrat-backed proposal in the General Assembly would allow Wake County municipalities to publish public notices soley online. This would mark a shift from also placing the notices in traditional print publications, such as newspapers, and could prevent people without internet access from seeing them.
Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, primary sponsor of House Bill 272, said many municipalities in Wake County asked for the change because it would be cheaper to publish notices solely online. Public notices are currently available in print editions of newspapers and on their websites. Public notices may also be accessed on the website of the N.C. Press Association.
The measure applies to the towns of Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Knightdale, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon. A similar move during the 2020-21 session of the General Assembly, which would have allowed certain local governments to publish notices solely online, ultimately failed.
The latest measure, though brief, is succinct.
“The governing body of a city or town may adopt ordinances providing that notice of public hearings and other required notices may be given through electronic means, including, but not limited to, the Town’s Internet site,” it reads. “Electronic notice may be in lieu of traditional publication methods. Ordinances adopted pursuant to this section shall not supersede any State law that requires notice by mail to certain classes of people or the posting of signs on certain property and shall not alter the publication schedule for any public notice.”
The N.C. Press Association works “to protect the public’s right to know through the defense of open government and First Amendment freedoms, and we help maintain the public’s access to local, state and federal governments,” its website says.
Phil Lucey, NCPA executive director, said Gill’s measure could create problems because traditional newspapers provide residents transparency and bring measures of accountability to government.
“An important part of this process is that those notices are published by the newspaper, which is an uninterested third party, which provides a good check and balance for this government action,” Lucey said. “That would be removed from the equation if a city were able to post their own notice.”
Municipalities issue public notices to inform residents and taxpayers about government actions affecting them, including notices for meetings and public hearings. Municipalities and counties must now publish public notices in local publications available to the community, in addition to making notices visible on signs and, in certain cases, sending them through mail to affected residents.
According to N.C. General Statutes, “A notice of the hearing shall be given once a week for two successive calendar weeks in a newspaper having general circulation in the area. The notice shall be published the first time not less than 10 days nor more than 25 days before the date scheduled for the hearing.”
Lucey said many residents don’t actively check their town’s website for updates and news.
“You’re leaving a large percentage of citizens out of this process where newspapers are delivering those notices to you in a variety of ways, and again giving you a permanent archivable record of this government action taking place,” Lucey said.
Of all 100 counties, no single county website matches the readership reached by North Carolina newspapers, Lucey said. The readership of newspapers across the state, despite the move online, remains robust, he said.
“We are reaching, by far, more readers today than we have in the history of newspapers,” Lucey said.
The proposed bill would not change state law, which requires providing public notices via mail or through posting signs, and it would not change the publication schedules for public notices.
Wake County N.C. Reps. Terence Everitt, Julie Von Haefen and James Roberson signed onto the bill, as well. All are Democrats.