TAR HEEL VIEW: Wade’s win on public notices is democracy’s loss

A senator’s skullduggery could leave a half-million North Carolinians in the dark and pave the way for government secrecy to spread throughout the state.

Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, should have taken no for an answer when the House Finance Committee shot down her small-minded bid to hide public notices on government websites Wednesday. Instead, she shoehorned the provision into a hijacked House bill.

Wade scored a legislative victory but exposed her ulterior motive in the eleventh-hour maneuvering. Her grudge against her local daily, the News & Record of Greensboro, has long been one of the worst-kept secrets on Jones Street.

To support her specious claim that public notice laws amount to government subsidies for newspapers, Wade sought to change the rules in all 100 counties. When that effort failed, she floated a four-county pilot program.

That wouldn’t fly either, but Wade got what she really wanted in the end — an amendment applying only to her home county.

“This is not a pilot program, this is a target program,” said Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford. “The target is the News & Record newspaper of my hometown, Greensboro.”

House Bill 205 was originally filed to extend workers’ compensation benefits to some North Carolina prison inmates. It later became a vehicle for Wade’s vendetta, and the final amendment was rushed through Wednesday night.

A conference report on the modified bill cleared the Senate 32-14. When the dust settled at 11:47 p.m., it had squeaked by in the House on a 60-53 vote. HB 205 now awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature or veto stamp.

“The late-night wrangling to make this bill pass should shock any citizen who believes in representative democracy and is a perfect example of lawmaking at its worst,” the North Carolina Press Association said in a statement. “There is only one winner here, and that’s the senator who sponsored the bill and forced this issue at all cost.”

Once HB 205 takes effect, local governing bodies in Guilford County can pass ordinances authorizing notices of public hearings, land purchases and contracts to be posted on city and county websites in lieu of newspaper publication. The county could also sell space on its site to attorneys for the posting of foreclosure notices.

The switch would save small amounts of money now spent on newspaper advertising, but it would also place public notices where they’re far less likely to be seen. Static government websites log a small fraction of the online traffic that dynamic local news sites generate. Those without home internet access, including the poor and elderly, would no longer be able to stay informed.

Wade’s addendum was crafted to punish the News & Record for coverage the senator considered unfavorable. A media law attorney says this blatant abuse of power may violate the First Amendment. Whether it’s unconstitutional or merely unscrupulous, the bill could have far-reaching effects.

Guilford is the state’s third-most populous county and home to more than 500,000 people who could be caught up in an information blackout. If the self-publishing option takes hold there, local governments throughout the state could seek permission to play hide and seek with their own public notices.

Wade’s so-called pilot program tests a premise that’s already been debunked. A North Carolina Press Association survey of local government web traffic shows the sites can’t come close to matching newspapers’ print and online audience. It’s tantamount to ordering a study on whether the earth is flat.

This isn’t research. It’s retribution.

The Wilson Times