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On National Newspaper Week, North Carolina lawmakers will consider yet another last-ditch effort to punish the free and independent press in an influential state senator's home district.
A memo from House Speaker Tim Moore to Republican caucus members last week obtained by the N.C. Policy Watch advocacy group included "Greensboro/Guilford public notice local bill" on an 11-item punch list of legislation to be considered during the legislative special session that begins at noon Wednesday.
Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, has been the driving force behind a push to exempt local governments in Guilford County from the state's public notice rules and allow them to post notifications of special meetings, public hearings, contracts and land transfers to their websites instead of advertising them in newspapers.
Wade successfully hijacked House Bill 205, which originally addressed inmate workers' compensation, and added a poison-pill amendment to let Guilford governments self-publish the notices. The amended bill narrowly passed and Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it July 17.
In his veto statement, Cooper tweaked Republican legislative leaders who claim to want limited government, noting that taking legal notices away from the newspaper industry "used the levers of big government to attack important institutions in our state who may disagree with them from time to time."
Our sources on Jones Street tell us lawmakers don't have the votes to override Cooper's veto, which requires a two-thirds majority. That makes a local bill the last Hail Mary pass Wade and her allies can throw.
Local bills that affect 15 or fewer counties can be enacted with a simple majority vote and are not subject to the governor's veto stamp. It's a check on executive power in a state where the legislature has always wielded more clout than the governor. It wasn't until 1996 when lawmakers approved veto power for the state's chief executive during Gov. Jim Hunt's third term.
City and county governments could save a little money by posting public notices on their websites in lieu of buying legal ads in newspapers, but the savings comes at the cost of open government. Newspapers publish the notices in print and online, reaching a far wider audience.
Citizens should be skeptical of cities that want to be in charge of notifying the public. When laws require them to publish notices of controversial actions they'd rather keep secret, can we be confident putting the foxes in charge of guarding the henhouse?
Wade has long held a grudge against the News & Record of Greensboro because of news coverage she considered unfavorable. Her effort to take public notices away from her hometown newspaper sure seems to be motivated by personal animus, not legitimate public policy considerations.
Lawmakers should not allow one of their own to abuse the General Assembly to settle a score. We call on Sens. Rick Horner and Angela Bryant and Reps. Susan Martin and Jean Farmer-Butterfield to vote against any local bills that seek to exempt any city, county or town from public notice requirements.
On National Newspaper Week, our elected representatives should take a stand for press freedom and transparency, not pettiness and secrecy.