In a move that Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson called “childish,” the News & Record is now refusing to run paid ads from Guilford County government that inform citizens where they can find information about the county’s publicly noticed events and legal actions.
It is believed to be the first time in history that the News & Record has refused to accept money to run ads from Guilford County. The News & Record didn’t give the county a reason for rejecting the ad, but the papers decision is unquestionably related to a lawsuit the newspaper filed after action by the state and Guilford County allowed the county to place legally required public notices of meetings, rezonings and other events on the county’s website rather than in print newspapers with paying subscribers.
In early June, the News & Record – along with The High Point Enterprise, The Carolina Peacemaker and the Jamestown News (all of which get significant ad revenue from printing Guilford County’s public notices) – filed suit against Guilford County and the State of North Carolina because Guilford County, with approval from state legislators, began implementing the new public notice practice.
Under the new model, the county’s public notices are posted on the county’s website rather than printed in the newspaper – as has been the practice and the law for over a century. The move saves taxpayers money and provides a revenue stream to Guilford County; however, the News & Record and other paid circulation newspapers that have benefited from the law didn’t like seeing the end of their longtime monopoly on printing public notices.
One legal requirement included in the state law passed last year calls for Guilford County to notify the public of the change through an ad once a month for 12 consecutive months. So, as part of the transition process, Guilford County has been running print ads each month in the News & Record to inform citizens of the change and to let them know the announcements can now be found on the county’s website. The News & Record ran the first such ads, however, last week the paper rejected the August ad that the county sent in.
Branson said he was surprised when county staff informed him that the newspaper was refusing to run the ads.
“It sounds a little childish to me,” Branson said.
The lawsuit filed against Guilford County and the state claims that the legislation exempting Guilford County from running public notices in newspapers is unfair, politically motivated and a violation of the state Constitution. The suit also contends that state legislators improperly used a local act to exclude Guilford County from the statewide general statute that historically has required that legal notices be published in general circulation newspapers with paid circulation.
The News & Record is continuing to run other ads for the county. For instance, the paper is running an ad for Guilford County’s Citizen’s Academy – a class headed by Commissioner Kay Cashion that is meant to inform citizens about county government’s practices and operations.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said the News & Record only sent a brief email declining to run the ad but the paper offered no explanation.
“We have requested the ad be run some other place,” Payne said.
County staff did inquire informally of News & Record staff as to the reason for the rejection, but they were simply told that the News & Record had chosen to decline the ad.
The legal battle between the county and the newspapers is now heating up. On Wednesday, August 15, Payne filed Guilford County’s answer to the newspapers’ lawsuit, in which he presented 15 defenses of the county’s new notification practice.
“It looks like it will be heard in Wake County by a three-judge panel,” Payne said of the case that’s moving forward.
He also said the parties on each side largely agree on the facts, so the case is likely to come down to a question of law.
“It’s all legal determination,” Payne said.
He added that it’s too early in the process to know when the hearing will be.
In 2017, after a political battle in the NC General Assembly, the State of North Carolina approved the new legislation that allowed Guilford County the right to stop running notices of meetings, foreclosures, tax liens, rezoning cases and other matters, if the Guilford County Board of Commissioners approved the move.
On Thursday, March 1, 2018, the commissioners gave their final approval to the change, though, at that time, representatives of local newspapers, including News & Record Publisher Daniel Finnegan, came to commissioners meetings several times and spoke against the change.
The big financial blow to the News & Record and other area papers isn’t the loss of the county’s notice business but is instead the expected loss of other revenue: Once the legal battle is fought, Guilford County plans to begin running the public notices for cities and towns across the county, as well as for private entities such as attorneys and other citizens who are required by law to post notices for various legal matters. The new legislation permits the 13 municipalities in Guilford County to use the county’s new service for their announcements.
The ads posted for private-sector parties will cost $100 or $450, depending on the type of ad.
Guilford County will get $10 for each ad from other local governments participating in the program, which means those towns and cities will see savings in their advertising costs just as Guilford County has.
Before the recent change, Guilford County was spending about $300,000 a year on print advertisements, and about $70,000 of that was for publishing legally required notices – an expense the county is happy to get rid of.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said this week that the implementation of the program was going well.
“We haven’t had any problems,” she said. “The system is working good.”
She said Guilford County “double posted” public notices for several months prior to July 1 to help people get used to looking for the notices on the county’s website.
“The second phase, that we are kind of holding off on, would be to incorporate the other jurisdictions that want to participate,” Keller said, adding that may include the cities and towns of Guilford County, the water and airport authorities, the school system, the Piedmont Triad Regional Council and others.
Keller said taking that step will require hiring a new employee and county officials wanted to see the legal issue resolved before a new staff member was hired to handle the public notice business from the cities and towns. Keller said the county didn’t want to hire someone and then have to do away with the position if there was a legal hitch.