Guilford County officials said Thursday they don’t know exactly how they will make use of new authority to post legal notices on their government website instead of publishing them in the News & Record or other newsprint publications.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners gained the new leeway at literally the eleventh hour Wednesday night when the state House and Senate separately approved a hotly debated compromise bill to test — but only in Guilford County — the publication of legal and public notices on the county’s online site.
The measure took final shape after much wrangling between supporters and critics who claimed that its chief motivation stemmed from an alleged desire for revenge by state Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro) against the News & Record for previous news coverage that she felt was biased and unfair.
Wade denied the accusation in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, saying the impetus was nothing more than her interest in letting local governments make use of more modern technology that interested residents could view at no charge per view.
“It really doesn’t have anything to do with the News & Record. It has to do with making sure the citizens have free access to legal notices,” Wade said. “To be honest with you, technology changes. This is just another example of changing technology and people using that technology.”
But News & Record Publisher and Editor Daniel Finnegan expressed dismay at the outcome, saying that Guilford County residents will be poorly served because far fewer of them likely will view important notices of legal actions and other public matters that affect their lives.
“We are extremely disappointed in the action taken by the legislature to single out the residents of Guilford County,” Finnegan said. “While this will have some impact on our bottom line, what concerns us most is that this bill will have a negative effect on the public’s access to their local governments.”
Finnegan added that it is inaccurate to contend, as some legislators do, that the bill increases public transparency “because we reach far more people with the combination of our newspaper and website — more than 100,000 per day — than government websites.”
County Manager Marty Lawing said the board has not yet formally discussed what to do next or how to use its new powers. The bill, which would take effect in October with Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, requires local officials to pass an ordinance authorizing the online noticing before the pilot program could begin.
“Since it all materialized so late last night, we haven’t had an opportunity to review it yet and definitely have not had a chance to meet with the board to discuss it,” Lawing said Thursday. “We routinely have too much on our plate to speculate on things that might not happen.”
Board Chairman Jeff Phillips also said that to his knowledge the commissioners had not recently discussed putting the county’s official government and court postings on the county website, www.myguilford.com.
“Once our board members have had the opportunity to understand and discuss the details of the bill, I am confident we will come to the conclusion we believe to be in the best interest of our citizens,” Phillips said.
The bill would authorize only the county website for legal notices in court actions such as foreclosures and similar judicial notifications. But the county, as well as Guilford’s cities and towns, could use their individual online platforms for public notice of, for example, zoning hearings that previously might have required print publication.
The compromise bill, approved Wednesday by the Senate at 11:04 p.m. and by the House 43 minutes later, would allow the county to charge between $10 and $450 depending on the type of notice and who is posting it.
Half the money collected would go to the Guilford County Board of Education for teacher supplements, 40 percent to the county’s general fund and 10 percent to cover the county’s cost to administer the program.
The events capped a long day Wednesday for legislators nearing the end of the so-called “long” session that occurs every two years, when they hammer out a budget for the next 24-month budgeting cycle that begins July 1.
The path to Wednesday’s late-night votes started with a bill Wade and two other senators introduced March 21 that would have applied statewide.
That bill stalled in a House committee, but parts of it were resurrected as an attachment to another measure involving newspaper carriers. And the online governmental approach to legal noticing statewide evolved under fire from critics into a pilot program affecting only Guilford, Forsyth, Buncombe and Durham counties.
And eventually, all but Guilford were eliminated.
The adopted bill still affects the industry statewide by removing the independent contractor designation for newspaper carriers, making them eligible in some cases for added employee benefits.
The bill also sets limits on how much newspapers can charge for notices that must be published repeatedly and imposes requirements for posting the notices on a newspaper’s website.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) said that Wade was so strongly committed to seeing action on the online bill that she used her influence Wednesday to “hold hostage” the House bills pending in the Senate until action was taken on the legal-ad measure.
“It was really about Trudy Wade and the News & Record,” Harrison said. “I do think it’s her vendetta against the News & Record.”
In House debate Wednesday night, state Rep. Amos Quick (D-Greensboro) described the measure as “a target program against the News & Record.”
Harrison said that she supports the concept of local governments being able to use their websites in the way envisioned by the bill, but that broadband internet service needs to be more widely available, especially in rural areas.
“I think we’ll get there eventually, but it isn’t there now,” Harrison said.
Wade disagreed, saying that these days “most people have a cell phone, especially in an urban area.”
Wade said that having served on both the Greensboro City Council and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, she remembered that both groups at that time were interested in using their websites for public noticing.
State Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Greensboro) voted for the measure that passed 60-53 in the House, and 32-14 in the Senate, because “it’s time for the state to look at moving toward electronic noticing.”
“More and more people are beginning to access the news from online sources,” Hardister said.
The North Carolina League of Municipalities has long supported the concept. And Wade noted that some North Carolina communities — including Raleigh, Cary and Apex — already have authority to publish some types of official notices on their websites.
The measure also would affect all newspapers serving parts of Guilford County, such as the High Point Eneterprise, Jamestown News and the Kernersville News.
The real problem is that without the newspaper industry as a third-party watchdog, there’s potential for government some day to use its control over legal notices to conceal that very information it should be disseminating, said Charles Womack, whose company publishes the Jamestown News, Yes! Weekly and other publications in North Carolina and Virginia.
“The most important thing is the slippery slope we could be going down when it comes to the public’s right to know,” Womack said.