Communication methods and the public’s right to know are at the heart of North Carolina Senate Bill 186, “Notice Publication by Counties and Cities.” The bill passed its first reading in March.
If the bill becomes law, it would allow governing boards of counties and cities to give notice of public meetings on the board’s website rather than publishing the notice in the local newspaper.
Rep. Joe Tolson (D-Edgecombe) said he does not have a problem with publishing public notices online, but he thinks they need to be published in the newspaper, as well.
“I have always been supportive of doing it in the newspapers because so many people still do not have that connectivity or technology in their homes. I think we still need to do that for our citizens,” said Tolson. “If they don’t have the technology to have access to it (the public notice), then they’re left out.” Additionally, Tolson said he believes some people look specifically for information like public notices in newspapers.
SB 186 contains the condition that the governing bodies provide specific instructions on how to access the notices at least once a month for 12 months in a newspaper with circulation in that jurisdiction.
The North Carolina Press Association makes the case on its website that newspapers are accessible in many public locations, while some state residents do not have access to the Internet. In June 2010, only 71.8 percent of North Carolinians used the Internet, according to Internet World Stats Usage and Population Statistics.
Edgecombe County Manager Lorenzo Carmon said the county traditionally advertises public notices in both of the county’s newspapers – The Daily Southerner and the Rocky Mount Telegram.
“I think it’s been successful,” he said. He thinks every governmental jurisdiction should decide what is the best way of “getting the word out” to the public and that the public can help each jurisdiction make that decision.
“I think it’s important for the public to know the business of government and what government is doing,” said Carmon. “The whole idea is to try to have open government and participation as best you possibly can…You’ve got to hit as many people as you possibly can with your notices and your advertisements.”
With the proposition of posting public notices on governmental websites, Carmon believes sending messages to the public via social media such as Facebook and Twitter will be the next form of communication.
“We’re exploring the possibility of doing those kinds of things because that’s how a lot of people get their news and messages these days,” said the county manager.
Tarboro Mayor Donald Morris said he believes more people in town would see a notice of a public hearing or special meeting in the daily newspaper faster than they would find the notice on the town’s website.
“I think it’s more advantageous in a town our size that we put it in the newspaper,” said Morris. “I think that’s the best source in the world.”
Tarboro Town Councilman Taro Knight agreed, saying he “can’t see where more people get their news from the Town of Tarboro website than The Daily Southerner.”
“Wherever citizens get their information the most, that’s the medium that we need to use,” he said.
In Knight’s view, posting public notices on governing boards’ websites rather than in newspapers is likely to lessen residents’ participation in the government process.
“It’s kind of going backwards in terms of transparency,” said the town councilman. “I would hope that those of us who are elected would want to be as transparent as possible.”
Knight said it’s important to him for residents to participate in the governmental process “with their presence” at public meetings, and through the expression of their opinions and concerns during the public comment time in the meetings. To him, that participation helps hold elected officials accountable.
“I was elected by people to be their representative, to vote on things that are important to them,” Knight said. “I want to base my decisions on what the majority of people in my ward think is good, sound policy.”
Whether SB 186 will become law is uncertain at this time, but a similar Senate Bill, 287, passed its third reading Tuesday. SB 287, “Notice Publication by Some Local Governments,” proposes allowing 10 North Carolina counties and any municipalities within those counties to publish public notices on their websites rather than in the local newspaper. The bill also includes the City of High Point and Town of Morrisville.