It’s about to get a lot easier to find notices of rezonings, public hearings, foreclosures and other business conducted by Guilford County government.

Thanks to a 5-to-3 vote by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners at the Thursday, Feb. 15 meeting, public notices issued by Guilford County will soon be available in a central location online for free rather than printed in the classified sections of various paid subscription newspapers that county citizens must purchase to read.

The vote to make the change split down party lines, with the board’s five Republican commissioners voting for Guilford County to begin offering public notices on the website and the three Democratic commissioners – Skip Alston, Carlvena Foster and Kay Cashion – voting no. Commissioner Carolyn Coleman wasn’t at the meeting, but, based on her previous comments, Coleman would likely have voted no along with her fellow Democrats.

State legislators have granted Guilford County the ability to change the way the public is informed whenever notification is required by law. The Feb. 15 vote by the commissioners – after one more perfunctory vote by the board in March confirming this decision – allows the county to take advantage of the state’s move and lets Guilford County advertise legally required announcements electronically on the county’s website at no out-of-pocket cost to the county, rather than continue to pay the high ad rates charged by paid circulation newspapers.

Since the commissioners’ approval wasn’t unanimous, the board will have to approve it a second time, but that coming vote doesn’t have to be unanimous for the change to take effect.

In addition to saving the county advertising fees paid to newspapers, the move is expected to generate a steady and sizable stream of revenue for Guilford County government and schools from municipalities, private attorneys and others who must give public notice for actions such as divorces, foreclosures, estate settlements and more.

The change in the way the public is provided notice was, of course, vehemently opposed by the paid circulation, general interest newspapers that have benefited for nearly a century from their longstanding monopoly on government notices. While a few other counties in the state are allowed limited exemptions from publishing notices in newspapers, Guilford County is the only North Carolina county that was offered an opportunity to be part of the state’s new “e-notice” pilot program.

Before the vote at the Feb. 15 meeting, the Board of Commissioners held a public hearing in the commissioners’ second-floor meeting room in the Old Guilford County Court House at which proponents and opponents each got 20 minutes to speak.

Keith Brown, a High Point resident who blogs about local government, spoke in favor of the change. Brown said North Carolina’s “antiquated” laws that require publication of local government notices in paid circulation newspapers were the result of “monopolistic business practices” that have no place in today’s world. He said the current law forces local governments to use hard-copy legal notices that are “hard to read, wasteful and reach fewer and fewer people each year.”

“It now has no basis other than to help the bottom line of newspapers in the State of North Carolina,” Brown told commissioners at the hearing.

He said modern technology gives the county the ability to get the word out in a more effective and affordable manner than by putting notices in newspapers. He also pointed out that, under current law, notices require people to spend money to see them.

He added that everybody has a friend or relative with online access and he pointed out that area libraries offer free internet access.

“Right now, the law should be called the North Carolina Press Association Monopoly Protection Act,” Brown said.

He displayed the News & Record’s website on the overhead projector and showed how deep on that site the public notices were buried.

“If this is such an important part of their paper to do this, where is it that it says ‘Public Notices’ on the Greensboro News & Record website?” Brown asked.

He also stated that the Jamestown News, another paid circulation newspaper that Guilford County has used for notices, reaches 5,000 people, if that, in a county of over 500,000. So, he said, it’s a mistake to see publication in that paper the same as making the announcements available to the county residents on a wide scale.

Brown also noted that though the Northwest Observer is widely read in northwest Guilford County, ads placed in that free paper don’t qualify as legally sufficient notice under public notice law.

Newspapers such as the Northwest Observer don’t qualify because they are distributed at no charge, but papers do qualify if they cost money. The idea that newspapers distributed for free don’t qualify for public notices, but those that charge readers do, is a good indication of how unfriendly the current law is.

Brown told the commissioners that other counties in the state are seeking the same right that state legislators have granted Guilford County in this pilot program.

In October, the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution requesting that state legislators also grant that county the right to post e-notifications in place of costly newspaper ads.

Many advocates behind the change in Guilford County believe that, as soon as other counties in North Carolina see Guilford County cutting costs and making money under the new pilot program, cities, towns, counties, attorneys, banks and others across the state will want the same right to electronically post their legally required notices.

At the Feb. 15 meeting, during the 20 minutes allotted for opponents, representatives of The Carolina Peacemaker and the News & Record – two papers that have profited from printing public notices for Guilford County and other local governments – spoke against the change under consideration.

Afrique Kilimanjaro, managing editor of The Carolina Peacemaker, said that moving the ads to the county’s website would hurt “transparency and access.”

“Placing legal notices solely on the county’s website will primarily hurt the people in this county who still face a digital divide and do not have access to the internet,” Kilimanjaro said.

She said that “upwards of 20 percent” of county residents have no internet connection, and she added that places like Summerfield often have very spotty access at best.

“Many people would rather buy a newspaper than go online,” she said. “This move regarding public notices would cut off all those who only read newspapers.”

She added that the newspapers were the place where citizens expect to see notices about foreclosures, rezonings, changes in election districts and other events.

“Our newspapers reach people that the county website does not reach,” Kilimanjaro said, adding, “Our website is far more attractive than the county website.”

She said Guilford County’s website went down last summer and noted that Mecklenburg County’s website was hacked recently. She said these notices are too important to only post on the web.

“Public notices are a vital part of our democracy,” she said.

News & Record Publisher Daniel Finnegan also spoke against the move. He said he agreed with Kilimanjaro that the change would hurt the transparency of county government and added that it would put Guilford County in an awkward spot.

“I’m also concerned that this change will put government in the position of competing with private, local businesses who are performing this task well at a relatively low cost to the county and other local governments,” Finnegan said. “In addition to being legally questionable, this seems to run counter to the concept of less government and the belief the private sector should handle as much as possible – a concept I believe many of you have espoused,” he said.

“Newspapers are private businesses that employ people and contribute to the public welfare,” he added.

Finnegan said area newspapers compete against each other for the county’s notice business so it isn’t correct to call it “a monopoly.” He also said there was a lot of work and expense in publishing the notices.

He said the commissioners were underestimating the tedious nature of the work and the amount of time and effort involved in the process and also said the News & Record and other area papers had a full-time employee who makes sure the notices are handled correctly.

“Also, who will have control of the webpage?” Finnegan asked. “Who will have access to the time stamp? Once it comes out on the web, files can be changed and time-stamps can be changed.”

In addition, Finnegan argued that Guilford County would be taking on added legal liability.

“There are important questions because any mistake with notices can be costly, as anyone who runs a newspaper knows,” he said.

Finnegan, who spoke for about 10 minutes on the topic, told the board, ”If you choose to make this change, you could lose transparency, and it could mean the demise of some newspapers that act as government watchdogs.”

After the public hearing, Commissioner Jeff Phillips made the motion to adopt the change and Commissioner Hank Henning seconded it.   Phillips said that, with no disrespect meant to the people who had just argued otherwise, he believed the change would make county government more transparent and make the notices more accessible to the public. He said that internet access is widely available these days.

“Frankly, it makes all kinds of sense – common sense in fact,” Phillips said. “It’s lost on me as to why anyone elected or otherwise would be opposed to a central, easily accessible online location for all public records.”

Like Phillips, Henning said the move made a great deal of sense to him.

“We’re requiring our citizens to pay money to get public notices,” Henning said, adding that this information should be free to the citizens and that this is the wave of the future in an age of social media and web-based services.

The Democratic commissioners didn’t agree. Cashion said she wouldn’t be voting for the move. She said this would put the county in competition with local businesses and that, she said, didn’t “sit well” with her.

Foster said she was concerned with the “digital divide,” while Alston said he was voting against the motion because it was creating a situation where government was competing against private enterprise.

This item first came before the Guilford County Board of Commissioners at a Thursday, Dec. 7 meeting; however, at that time, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson cast his vote with the Democrats to delay the matter until the board’s January meeting. That meeting was canceled due to snow and ice, and the required public hearing couldn’t be placed on the agenda for the makeup meeting because, ironically, there wasn’t sufficient time to notify the public of the new hearing time. That’s why this matter, delayed in December, was finally being heard by the board in mid-February.

At the December meeting, several commissioners said they believed a compromise might be worked out between the county and the newspapers who printed notices. Guilford County County Attorney Mark Payne told the board at the February meeting that it was his understanding that attorneys for the newspapers would get back with the county if they had any ideas for compromise but they had not been heard from again.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing stated before the vote that the county could still use newspapers in the future if that was the will of the board. Lawing also said that putting public notices on websites rather than in newspapers was a common practice in other states and noted that some local governments in North Carolina had experience doing so as well.

Guilford County spends roughly $300,000 each year in advertising, and just over $70,000 of that is for required legal advertisements.

Until about three years ago, Guilford County was spending nearly $100,000 to advertise delinquent tax notices; however, the county greatly reduced that cost when it put out that advertising for competitive bids, removed them from the News & Record, and began putting them in the Jamestown News.

The fact that the Jamestown News reaches less than half of a percent of the county’s population but still fulfills the county’s legal obligation to advertise points to the highly questionable nature of the current law that Guilford County will soon be out from under.