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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Repealing the right to know

The North Carolina Legislature continues its assault on the people's right to know, consumer protection and newspapers' role in broadly reaching a community audience.

It's deeply disappointing to see that Chuck McGrady, a longtime conservationist and protector of air and water quality, has switched sides. McGrady is the chief sponsor of a bill that would eliminate a requirement that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources notify the public through newspapers of certain permit applications. Instead, McGrady's bill launches a pilot program that will allow the agency to fulfill the public notice requirement by publicizing a hearing on its website and sending an email to "a list of interested parties who have requested notification."
The problem here is obvious, or should be.
No one reads a government website to find out if a new mine or major water well — two of the permits included in the pilot notification bill — is proposed for the neighborhood. And no one is an "interested party" until the threat pops up in the community.
As we've said in this space before, we're not without a dog in this fight. The Hendersonville Lightning is among the newspapers that runs public notices of the kind the General Assembly is now threatening to eliminate. We're not likely to be affected directly by House bill 755 because the bill's scope is limited, at least this year.

It has the potential to expand; in fact it is likely to. How do we know? The bill itself says so. It directs DENR to "identify other notification requirements in statute or rule for which electronic notice may be adequate." Sounds like the kind of camel's nose that would have alarmed McGrady himself back when he was on the side of landowners negatively affected by projects that government agencies have the power to approve.
Meanwhile, the Senate this week took up House bill 243, which threatens consumer rights. Again, the scope of the bill is narrow and in this case reeks of a favor to someone's special interest friends in the storage business. It removes the requirement in law that the owners of self-storage facilities take out newspaper ads before the public sale of personal property belonging to renters who don't pay. And again, the broader threat is clear: more areas of business and law that require public notices will try to jump on the bandwagon in the interest of saving money. Consumers will be the loser.
The broadest attack of all is a bill that would eliminate public notices cities and counties now take out before they act on rezonings, land-use code amendments, road closings and other permit applications. The limited amount of money the bill would save is hardly worth the far bigger loss to Henderson County residents and North Carolinians. We hope the Legislature sees fit to stop these bad ideas — and preserve the public's right to know — before they start.