Our Opinion: Henson stands up for public notices and transparency

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State Rep. Cody Henson already believed taking public notices out of newspapers and relegating them to little-used government websites was the wrong choice for North Carolina.

A memorable email from one of his constituents served to strengthen his resolve.

A woman who lives in a rural area of Transylvania County without internet access drove to her local library to contact Henson, a freshman Republican lawmaker whose District 113 includes all of Transylvania and Polk counties and a southern portion of Henderson County.

“She asked Rep. Henson to vote against taking public notices out of the Transylvania Times,” said Bill Moss, publisher of the Hendersonville Lightning and a member of the North Carolina Press Association Board of Directors. “She still reads the T-Times cover to cover, including the public notices. She can find out what land might be rezoned, how much property taxes are going up, what road might be closed, who didn’t pay their property taxes, where the county might site a sewage treatment plant. She likes the public notices.”

Several bills filed in the N.C. General Assembly’s 2017 long session sought to give government agencies the option to post public notices on their websites instead of publishing them in newspapers. When the dust settled, opponents of government transparency claimed victory in just one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

For fighting the shortsighted bills and refusing to bow to pressure from the House Republican Caucus, Henson received the William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award during the North Carolina Press Association’s winter banquet last Thursday.

Moss, whose newspaper is in Henson’s district, nominated him for the honor and said messages from constituents like the Transylvania County woman mattered.

“Rep. Cody Henson listened,” Moss said. “He put her interest above the interest of legislative leaders, his party’s caucus, even his own political hide. When he put the First Amendment first, he put the people first. And we’re the better state for it.”

Public notices are a form of classified advertising, and advocates for government self-publication say cities and counties could save money if they weren’t required to pay newspapers to publish the information. It doesn’t seem to bother them that roughly a fifth of North Carolinians don’t have home internet access and would be left uninformed.

Newspapers remain the closest thing we have to a community bulletin board. When a local paper prints a public notice, it appears in print and on the paper’s website, reaching a combined audience no one else can match. A 2017 survey shows that most North Carolina newspapers boast at least 10 times the web traffic of government sites for the cities and counties in which they’re published.

Placing public notices on government websites would diminish the audience for this vital information, reducing transparency and accountability. It also would cause financial strain for the newspaper industry — the trigger behind last year’s self-publishing push.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican with a long and well-documented grudge against the Greensboro News & Record, spent countless hours fighting to place public notices where most people won’t see them. We believe her motivation had precious little to do with securing meager savings for local government and a lot to do with punishing the News & Record for critical coverage.

When Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a Wade-backed bill to place public notices exclusively online in four counties, she managed to muscle through a local bill that made the change in Guilford alone. Local bills aren’t subject to the governor’s veto stamp, so Wade got her pound of flesh at the expense of her many constituents who don’t make a habit of mining government websites for news.

Henson “was always a fighter,” Moss said. He played high school football at Rosman and served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Rep. Chris Whitmire recruited the then-24-year-old Henson to run for state House in 2016.

Despite his age and freshman status, Henson refused to back down when party leaders demanded he vote for Wade’s misguided legislation. No amount of arm-twisting would change his mind.

“Henson turned out to be one of the most independent-minded members of the legislature, especially when it came to standing up for the people’s right to know and looking out for the folks back home who read newspapers,” Moss said.

We congratulate Rep. Cody Henson on his William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award, a well-deserved honor for a true public servant.

The General Assembly could use more lawmakers like him.