This week, Guilford County officials reacted to a move by state Sens. Michael Garrett and Gladys Robinson to overturn the right of people, businesses and governments in Guilford County to meet legal requirements of public notice by posting those notices on Guilford County’s website rather than in paid-circulation print newspapers.
For over a century, state law has required that legal notices – such as tax liens, meeting announcements, foreclosures, estate settlements and many other notices – appear in a print publication. However, over two years ago, a move led by former state Sen. Trudy Wade – who Garrett defeated in November – implemented a pilot program in Guilford County that allowed local governments, businesses and private citizens to meet public notice requirements by only having those notices posted on Guilford County’s webpage.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the change last year – the last step before it went into effect – but, if this new effort to repeal the enabling legislation is successful, that pilot program would be halted.
The newspapers are already fighting the new law in court: Four papers in Guilford County, including the News & Record, are suing the General Assembly and Guilford County over the law and that case is expected to be heard later this year.
On Friday, March 15, Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said he wishes that the newspapers that are engaging in this fight would come out and admit what this is really about.
“Let’s just be transparent,” Henning said. “It has everything to do with their revenue streams.”
Once Guilford County fully implements its public notice system, those newspapers stand to lose a great deal of money.
Henning said the world and its methods of communication have changed radically over the years and the laws should keep up.
“In this day and age, there are all sorts of means of communication that reach people,” Henning said, “and for the law to require that the ads be put into print newspapers is just ludicrous. I don’t think we should use tax dollars to subsidize private businesses.”
Guilford County has been facing the court battle for almost a year, and now it will have this new political fight on its hands as well.
The title of the bill calling for the repeal of the county’s right to use e-notices is actually longer than the bill itself. The title is: “An Act Restoring Fair Treatment for Journalism in Guilford County by Repealing a Pilot Program Authorizing Guilford County and Municipalities Located Wholly or Partly in Guilford County to Publish Required Notices Electronically and Authorizing Guilford County to Publish Legal Notices Via The County-Maintained Web Site for a Fee.”
While the majority of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to pass the bill and are now fighting for it on both a legal and political front, Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston said he hopes to see either the court or the legislature overturn the law.
“I have attorney friends who are saying it is not enough exposure for a notice to just be up on the county’s web page and they think that might open them up to litigation,” Alston said. “Someone who didn’t see a notice might say, ‘You only advertised it here.’”
Of course, even under the new law, if attorneys have that concern, they can still advertise a notice in the newspaper. Nothing about the new law forbids them from putting their notices in a print paper if they so choose.
Alston also said he’s concerned about the way the change hurts the county’s minority-run newspaper The Carolina Peacemaker. That paper is a party to the lawsuit.