Are you OK with government officials limiting who can speak at public hearings or keeping you in the dark on things like tax increases or zoning changes or continued meetings?
House Bill 51 opens the door for all of that.
The bill allows local governing bodies to post public notices on the county’s website “in lieu of or in addition to the required publication or advertisement” in a newspaper.
Let’s pretend for a minute that our elected leaders will be willing to spend more taxpayer dollars to report their notices in the newspaper and on the county’s website. (The county can charge other local governing bodies unchecked fees to do so under the bill). And let’s pretend they will continue to follow that practice into a second year of a troubled economy. (The stimulus checks won’t continue to come forever and someone will eventually need to pay for them.)
In the spirit of “saving taxpayer dollars,” local governing bodies could opt to only publish notices on the county’s website.
A recent market study by the North Carolina Press Association found 72% of North Carolinians read public notices on important things like tax increases and proposed zoning changes in local print or digital newspapers; and 86% of the state’s residents trust local newspapers and their websites for public notices more than government sources.
We have some great local officials, now, but can you really trust a politician you haven’t met yet?
Can you guarantee everyone will vote to keep the one you can’t trust out of office?
And then there’s that pesky internet problem we have.
We live in a rural county with limited internet access. That became painstakingly clear in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic when students and teachers were shoved into remote learning. Students struggled in the spring of 2020 because only about 60% of their households had access to the internet speeds they needed. Of the 20,564 students enrolled in Harnett County Schools that year, the district gave out 20,000 printed assignments and education packets in the spring to students who couldn’t access studies online.
And in our last issue, we saw the failure rates for middle school students jump from an average of 12% in the fall of 2019 to 31% in 2020 as a hybrid of remote and in-person learning kept them in constant flux.
In a 2018 Harnett County study on broadband issues, its 1,661 respondents said 86% of them had internet access at home, but only 32% had the speed they needed. How patient are you to wait for a webpage to load with dial-up speeds or crawl through the internet to read public notices?
The printed Daily Record reaches people with or without internet access and its website reaches far more people than government websites. It’s also cheaper than internet service and in a county where 1 in 6 live below the poverty level – that matters.
Nearly 17% of Harnett County residents live in poverty, including 14% of seniors over the age of 65, according to the most recent Census data.
If you bought a paper from our racks, it will cost you $8 a month — even less if you subscribe. The cheapest internet package here is $45-$50 a month — unless you have a smartphone and save all of your data for those local government searches and that will cost at least $20 a month for 500 megabytes of shared data (Consumer Cellular’s cheapest plan).
And you’ll have to check at least 35 websites to try to get the information we offered in this issue, although we obtain some information, like crime reports, that aren’t listed on a website until we post them on mydailyrecord.com. Those 500 megabytes will go fast.
And what if the power goes out? During the last major hurricane in our area, people were without electricity for days. We lost it at the paper, too, but we still printed. Even if people didn’t have the power to watch the news or read it online, The Daily Record still delivered it each day to their mailboxes.
And don’t forget the possibility of cyber attacks.
Person County was attacked by hackers last year and it took government officials months to get their websites back online.
But another troubling part of the bill states, “The board may continue a public hearing without further advertisement. If a public hearing is set for a given date and a quorum of the board is not then present, the board shall continue the hearing without further advertisement until its next regular meeting.”
With no need to remind constituents of their continued meetings, public access to those hearings are effectively limited.
The bill also allows a board of commissioners to fix the maximum time allotted to each speaker in a public hearing and to pick a spokesperson for a group, especially when the number of those in attendance exceeds the size of the meeting hall. Oh, and the board of commissioners gets to choose the hall.
Four times, the bill says the act applies only to 12 specific counties: Harnett, Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Craven, Gates, Hertford, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrell and Washington.
Harnett is the only inland county which is the home county of one of the bill’s primary sponsors Rep. Howard Penny (R).
Those counties are home to 10 community newspapers already walloped by the pandemic. And if you think legislation to keep you in the dark will stop there, you’re wrong. Another bill in the House attempts to do the same thing in 14 other counties in the Piedmont and Western North Carolina. Counties with the state’s largest newspapers — with the money and influence to fight such legislation are exempted — for now.
A government that is allowed to operate in the dark will be able to hide things from you in the cover of that darkness.
We’re here to shine a light and break through that darkness. That’s what we do and we do it for you.
“Democracy dies in darkness,” according to The Washington Post motto.
We can’t let the darkness win.
Emily Weaver is managing editor of The Daily Record. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2028.