Guilford County took its time moving public notices from area newspapers to the county’s website – but, now, after a final vote on Thursday, March 1, the county is ready to start saving money on those notices that include things like announcements of rezonings, foreclosures, public hearings and the non-payment of taxes by property owners.
Guilford County will also soon be ready to start making money on notices that other cities and towns – as well as businesses and attorneys – must post or publish by law.
The March 1 vote by the Board of Commissioners was required because last month the motion to transfer the county’s public notices to the web wasn’t unanimous. Most decisions by the board are approved if a motion gains a simple majority, but in some cases the board’s actions require a second vote if the first vote isn’t unanimous. So, on Thursday, Feb. 15, when the Board of Commissioners approved a motion on a 5-to-3 vote to move public notices to the web, it didn’t go into effect. But on Thursday, March 1, the board approved the action again – this time on a 5-to-4 vote – and that second vote didn’t need to be unanimous.
Both votes were along straight party lines with the Republicans voting in favor of the move and the Democrats opposing it. The one-vote difference was due to the fact that Democratic Commissioner Carolyn Coleman missed the February meeting but was at the March meeting.
It’s been a long, winding road to reach this point but now the new practice regarding notifications is finally in effect. The commissioners first voted on a resolution supporting the change in principle in August 2017. It took a legislative battle at the state level last year to allow Guilford County the right to meet its legal public notice requirements by posting those notices on the web rather than in paid-circulation newspapers. Over the last three months, various issues – including the fear of a lawsuit, a snowstorm and the legal requirement for a second vote of approval – delayed the move by the commissioners.
In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly made Guilford County a pilot program in the way the public is notified when that notification is required by law. State Sen. Trudy Wade was a driving force behind the legislation that allows Guilford County to advertise legally required announcements electronically on the county’s website at no out-of-pocket cost rather than require the county to pay the hefty advertising rates charged by paid-circulation newspapers.
Like local governments, some private sector businesses and individuals must post legally required notices – such as announcements of foreclosures and estate settlements – and, in the wake of the March 1 vote, Guilford County will soon be posting notices for attorneys, banks and others who’ll enjoy substantially lower rates than they’ve been getting from paid-circulation newspapers. Once county officials are sure all the kinks are worked out and the process is running smoothly, they’ll open up the service to the cities and towns in the county as well as the private sector.
Several county commissioners have pointed out that the county could still run public notices in a newspaper should they choose to do so. However, County Manager Marty Lawing made it clear at the Feb. 15 commissioners meeting that staff intends to move all notices to the web unless the will of the board is otherwise in a particular case.
Since the Guilford County commissioners have been on the verge of approving the move for months, county staff has had plenty of time to prepare. Local governments interested in using the service have been contacting Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller since late last year and many of those governments have expressed a desire to use the county’s new web-based service rather than post notices in the paid-circulation newspapers.
With the final vote to approve now history, Guilford County is likely to hire a part-time employee to help handle the notices. That salary will be covered by the new revenue that will be coming in.
The biggest opponents to the change, of course, have been the paid-circulation newspapers that will feel the financial blow of the lost advertising at a time when many newspapers are already struggling. Last month, the News & Record had another round of layoffs – and this latest loss of revenue isn’t going to help the paper’s financial situation.
The Guilford County commissioners held a required public hearing on the matter in February, so there was no public hearing on it at the March 1 meeting, which meant that the two men who came to speak on the matter did so during speakers from the floor, when anyone can speak on any subject.
News & Record Publisher Daniel Finnegan spoke at the Feb. 15 public hearing and he spoke to the board again on March 1, though this time he was limited to three minutes by the rules that apply to speakers from the floor.
“I too just want to ask you one last time to vote against the proposal for electronic notices,” he told the board, probably knowing that it was a lost cause at that point.
Finnegan said he wanted to clarify some points from the public hearing at the previous commissioners meeting. He said he thought it was a fine idea for the county to put notices on the county’s website but he added that the county should also publish those notices in the newspapers to reach that audience as well.
“Notices should be a responsibility but not a function of government,” Finnegan said.
He noted that, even though it was a “small point,” he wanted the commissioners to understand that the notices posted online by the News & Record were not behind a pay wall. Anyone can see them, he said, regardless of whether they subscribe to the paper.
One other speaker from the floor spoke on the issue. Ken Orms, a High Point resident who worked for years in the newspaper business in Virginia, spoke ardently in opposition to the change.
“Here we are again tonight talking about how the board wants to restrict taxpayer knowledge about the affairs of Guilford County by using e-notification of legally required notices,” he said.
Orms said the five Republican commissioners voted “in favor of secrecy” at the Feb. 15 meeting while the Democrats voted “in favor of openness and transparency.”
He was also highly critical of Wade, who, to a large extent, is the reason Guilford County has the option to make the change in the first place.
“Five Republicans voted like marionettes of their puppet master Sen. Trudy Wade and her political machine, who used Chicago-style dirty backroom tactics to advance their personal vendetta against the media and taxpayers,” he said.
He added that it was part of Wade’s “war on open and honest government.”
Orms also said the commissioners hadn’t done their due diligence when it came to studying what other counties experienced when they made a similar change.
“No project is all sunshine and lollipops, so why did you accept incomplete information and vote on an issue that has not been totally vetted?” he asked the board.
He pointed out that Davidson County had just been held hostage by hackers who placed ransomware on that county’s computers. Orms concluded by saying that the board should vote no and he added that Wade was “not the pied piper.”
The commissioners didn’t discuss the matter before the vote since they had discussed it at length several times at meetings and work sessions in the last six months. That March 1 vote to approve was the final obstacle for the change.
Nothing in the law prevents Guilford County, municipalities or attorneys from advertising in other publications; the law simply provides another, less expensive option for meeting public notice requirements.
The bill allowing Guilford County to provide public notice on the county’s website if it chose to do so became law in early October; however, even before then county staff knew the change could be in the works and began reviewing implementation strategies.
A broader bill that included other counties was passed by the state legislature originally, but that one was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper; the latest bill was approved with only Guilford County as part of the pilot program.
Now other counties are watching Guilford County closely to see how it goes. Rockingham County has already officially requested that it be granted the same right Guilford County was given by the state legislation.
The Guilford County Information Technology Department has been working with the clerk to the board’s office for months on the notification process.
In the final phase of the project, if commissioners approve the plan, Guilford County will accept online credit card payments for ads – so in time the payment process should become largely automated and even more cost efficient.