January 14, 2014
A North Carolina proposal to limit access to information must not be allowed to pass. The bill — proposed in North Carolina’s house — would allow municipalities to skirt public notices of some zoning changes.
That’s a terrible precedent to set.
If passed into law, House Bill 276 would let municipalities fulfill its public-notice obligation simply by mailing letters to anyone living near a zoning change. That’s a radical departure from current practice, where municipalities post public notices in newspapers and their websites.
In a letter to media executives, Les High, president of the North Carolina Press Association, points out two glaring problems with this proposal: First, this significantly diminishes the dissemination of community information. Second, it allows for potentially negative precedents to be set.
He offers an entirely plausible example: Say the First Baptist Church on one end of town proposes the addition of a go-kart track on its property. Neighbors are notified and the track is installed. Fast-forward a few months, and the First Presbyterian Church makes a similar proposal. Say neighbors there don’t want a track near their home. It would be difficult for a zoning board to deny the Presbyterian church’s request because the Baptist church was granted its track. Yet those living near the Presbyterian church weren’t even aware of the original proposal because they aren’t neighbors of the Baptist church.
They were deprived of an opportunity to speak out.
The bill comes amid a national push to take public notices out of newspapers and their websites. What’s at stake here is public accessibility and transparency, and gaining the best financial value for taxpayers.
General circulation newspapers — many of which serve as a community’s record of sorts — hit wide and diverse audiences, and satisfy a long democratic principle of the the people’s right to know. That always has been the concept behind the public-notice requirement — to ensure mass distribution of important public information through an independent party.