Attorneys representing the News & Record and other newspapers in Guilford County have informed Guilford County’s legal department that they are suing the county as well as the State of North Carolina over the county’s new practice of posting legally required public notices on the county’s website rather than in paid subscription newspapers, as was required by law in the past.
Newspapers such as the News & Record – which for years and years have enjoyed a very lucrative revenue stream from publishing those notices – fought very hard last year, and earlier this year, after the North Carolina 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 putting them in the paper.
Sources in Guilford County government said the county had been contacted by attorneys representing the newspapers and informed the county that the lawsuit would be filed soon.
Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston said the Board of Commissioners was aware that a lawsuit from the News & Record would be forthcoming. He said Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne briefed the board on that action during a recent closed session held for the commissioners to consult with the county attorney. The specifics of the case will not be known until the county receives a copy of the suit.
Alston said a “collective of newspapers” including the News & Record was bringing the lawsuit, but he added that he wasn’t sure exactly which other papers would be party to it.
In 2017, after a political battle at the state level, the State of North Carolina approved the legislation that allowed Guilford County the right to stop running notices of meetings, foreclosures, tax liens, rezoning cases and other events requiring public notice in paid circulation newspapers – if the Guilford County Board of Commissioners approved the move. On March 1, that board gave its final approval, though representatives of local newspapers, including News & Record Publisher and Editor Daniel Finnegan, had come to commissioners meetings several times and spoken vehemently against the change.
One reason the county commissioners didn’t adopt the move in December 2017, as originally planned, is because Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson and some other commissioners were concerned about the possibility of a lawsuit, which it now turns out wasn’t just an idle threat by the News & Record and other newspapers.
While the News & Record and other paid subscription papers in the county have been fighting against the legislation ever since it was first proposed, the majority of Guilford County commissioners have been pleased with the newfound flexibility and the potential revenue stream – half of which, by law, goes to the county schools.
The big financial blow to the News & Record and other papers isn’t the loss of the county’s notice business, but the loss of other revenue: Later this year, the county plans to begin running the public notices for cities and towns in the county as well as for private entities such as attorneys and other citizens who are legally required to post notices by law for various purposes. The new legislation permits the 13 municipalities in Guilford County to use the county’s new service for announcements.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said Guilford County’s notice service is up and running now. She said that in order to have a “soft launch,” the county for some time would be running the notices in newspapers and on the county’s website simultaneously.
Keller said the county is doing that for a “ transition period” to make sure everyone knows where to find the notices. She said the changeover has been smooth so far.
“It went well; there were no glitches,” she said.