A lawsuit filed by the News & Record and three other newspapers against Guilford County hasn’t been heard, but, despite that, the suit is still accomplishing its main purpose: It has put the county’s plans to expand its public notice operations on hold.
The News & Record, the High Point Enterprise, the Jamestown News and the Carolina Peacemaker filed suit earlier this year against Guilford County and the State of North Carolina over the county’s new practice of posting legally required public notices – such as meeting announcements, foreclosure notices and tax liens – on the county’s website rather than in paid subscription newspapers, as has been the practice for over a century.
The four newspapers – which in the past have enjoyed a very lucrative revenue stream from publishing public notices – fought the county’s move hard last year and at the start of this year after the NC General Assembly modified state law to allow Guilford County, as part of a pilot program, to meet its public notice requirements by posting the notices on the county’s website rather than using tax dollars to buy advertisements in one of the four papers who filed suit.
Everyone knows the speed at which the wheels of justice turn and, with lawsuit now in the court system, Guilford County has stopped moving forward with its intended plans to start posting public notices for other local governments – the other shoe that, when dropped, will be the really big financial blow to the News & Record and the other three newspapers.
Guilford County had planned to begin running the public notices for cities and towns in the county by the end of the year – as well as notices from private entities such as attorneys and other citizens legally required to post notices by law for various purposes. The state’s new legislation permits the 13 municipalities in Guilford County to use the county’s new service for announcements. Losing that business and the private notices would be a tremendous blow to the four newspapers.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller, who’s overseeing the new service, stated this week that county staff is still preparing for the eventual expansion of providing the service to other local governments but, given the lawsuit, she added, the county isn’t implementing those plans.
Keller wrote in an email, “Our IT [Information Technology] team has continued to work on the build out of the software should the county wish to move forward with accepting notices from other entities, but we have not moved on implementation of that at this time. We are continuing with only noticing Guilford County matters on the website.”
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said there’s no word yet on when the case will be heard.
“Not a lot has happened since it has been referred for assignment to a three-judge panel,” Payne wrote in an email this week, “nor, in reality, can much happen until so assigned.”
According to Keller, county departments are already seeing real benefits from the new program.
“Our departments have shared they have seen time improvements and ease of accessibility in processing notices since moving in house,” she wrote. “So far, we have seemed to work through our internal processes for reporting and the system has been working well.”