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State Sen. Tom Apodaca took a meaningful step on behalf of open and transparent government last week when he signed on as a primary sponsor of a bill that preserves the publication of public notices in newspapers.
Apodaca, the Hendersonville Republican who chairs the powerful Rules Committee, joined Sens. Norm Sanderson of Arapahoe and Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine in his early support of the bill.
Modeled after a bill enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2012, Senate Bill 129 preserves the requirement that cities and counties publish notices about rezonings, economic development incentives and other public matters in a local newspaper in advance of government action on such matters. The League of Municipalities and the state Association of County Commissioners for years have sought to change state law and move public notices to their own websites. The change would weaken the public's right to know. No one surfs the Internet looking for public notices. A homeowner or his or her neighbor runs across them on the way to and from the crossword puzzle and the yard sale ads. When newspapers run the notices, the word does get out. If a city or county website was the only place they ran ... crickets.
The counties that Apodaca represents have at least eight newspapers that benefit from the publication notices and clearly publishers are happy to have the revenue from public notices. But our economic interest is secondary to the interest of the people and their right to know about and speak on actions their government proposes to take.
The North Carolina Press Association for two years has pushed for a bill that would settle this ongoing fight, potentially for good. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Marilyn Avila, would also give cities and counties a price break on ads they must run more than once and it requires newspapers to run the ads for free on websites. Best of all, the measure protects the rights of all North Carolinians to know what the government is doing — whether it's spending tax money to attract industry, closing a road, rezoning property or selling public land.
A year ago the climate was unfavorable for passage of the bill, particularly in the state House. Speaker Thom Tillis opposed the statewide bill. This year, the outlook is better, and it improved markedly thanks to Sen. Apodaca's willingness to stamp his name on the Senate bill.
There's nothing radical about a bill that preserves current law. What newspapers have been fighting for years are repeated attempts to undo this fundamental right to know, either statewide or county by county. Thanks to Apodaca's support, Senate Bill 129 is sure to get a full hearing in this year's legislative session. The bill should win the support of all members of the North Carolina General Assembly who stand for their constituents' right to know and for openness and accountability in government.