Rep. Avila honored for open-government fight

2014-03-28 | The Wilson Daily Times

March 27--A state lawmaker's eleventh-hour stand to prevent some towns from sidestepping public notices rules has earned her a prestigious open-government award.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Wake County Republican, accepted the William C. Lassiter First Amendment award during the North Carolina Press Association's annual meeting last month. Avila made an impassioned plea to preserve laws that require local governments to place public notices in newspapers.

"The button you push tonight is not going to be about saving taxpayer money," Avila said in a May 2013 speech on the state House floor. "The button you push here tonight is going to tell the citizens of North Carolina how important you think they are as participants in their own government."

Senate Bill 287 would have allowed Guilford County towns to place notices on their websites instead of buying paid newspaper advertisements. Supporters touted the bill as a cost-cutting measure, but critics noted that government websites see little online traffic compared to news sites. That means fewer people would be informed of the town boards' actions.

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, who also opposed the bill, pointed out that elderly and low-income residents without home Internet access would be excluded if government bodies took public notices out of the paper and posted them on their websites.

'COST OF BUSINESS'

An initial draft of SB 287 would have exempted local governments in 10 North Carolina counties from public notice requirements. Lawmakers changed the bill numerous times, scaling back to four counties and then to one. Legislative leaders pushed for a floor vote after a House committee initially failed to pass the bill.

"Rep. Marilyn Avila stood tall in her fight against several bills brought by folks who wanted to take public notices out of newspapers and hide them on obscure government websites," said N.C. Press Association President Les High. "She fought those who felt saving money on running public notices was more important than keeping the public in the know."

Farmer-Butterfield cast a decisive vote against the bill in the House Rules Committee. With the panel deadlocked 10-10, SB 287 could not advance to the House floor. Backers held a second committee vote the next day, and the bill passed by a single vote.

Avila lobbied against SB 287 and proposed a compromise amendment that would require towns to place public notices in newspapers but offered discounts for multiple notices and ensured that papers would post the notices online for free.

"We're exempting ourselves from laws that we ask the private sector to obey," Avila told her colleagues in the House. "When we pass laws and taxes and regulations and we hear the public sector yell, 'It's too expensive!' our response is, 'Well, that's just your cost of doing business.' Well, members, that's our cost of doing business and public notifications to our citizens is a cost we must incur."

Avila also addressed disputes between lawmakers and the state's newspapers over the proposed public notice legislation. Disagreement during a Senate committee meeting led to an outburst by Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Waxhaw, who reportedly shouted down Goldsboro News-Argus publisher Hal Tanner.

"I am the senator," Tucker said. "You are the citizen. You need to be quiet."

Avila's remarks on the House floor sought to remind lawmakers that residents, not feuds with the state newspaper lobby, should ultimately influence their vote.

"The stated goal here tonight is to save money," Avila said. "That may be part of it. However, there does seem to be an ulterior motive by the natural tension that exists between government and the press as has been reflected lately in some recent exchanges here in the General Assembly. To legislate anything here based on pettiness and paranoia, seeking revenge, belittles the positions that we hold."

THE PEOPLE'S 'CHAMPION'

The press association credited Avila's persuasive and heartfelt speeches with helping to turn the legislative tide.

"Avila, a respected member of the Republican Party, took the time to study the issue, listen to all sides and decide for herself that taking public notices out of the public eye is bad for government and bad for the people," High said. "As she fought late into the night, night after night, as the last session ended, she spoke eloquently from the heart."

The Avila amendment passed the House by a 68-41 vote. Legislative leaders then pulled that bill and two others dealing with public notices from the calendar. The General Assembly did not pass any changes to state public notices laws in the 2013 session.

Newspapers presented Avila with the William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award Feb. 27 at the University of North Carolina's George Watts Hill Alumni Center in Chapel Hill. Wake Weekly owner and publisher Todd Allen nominated her for the honor.

"It's a special person who stands up on their own to fight to keep government open to the very people it represents, who makes sure the public's right to know is protected, no matter how hard the battle is," High said at the ceremony. "Tonight, we honor someone who took a political and personal risk to stand up in support of keeping public government notices in the eyes of the public."

The award -- which is among the highest honors the press association bestows -- is named for William C. Lassiter, an open-government attorney and former general counsel for the newspaper trade group.

"We don't give the William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award every year, and there's a reason for that," High said. "A true champion for the right to know doesn't come along every year. When someone does rise above the fray, we honor and celebrate that."

North Carolina newspapers received awards in the annual journalism contest, which is judged by reporters and editors in other states, during the press association's Winter Institute at the UNC alumni center. The press association also honored Charlie Rose, a Henderson native, PBS host and "CBS This Morning" co-anchor, as its North Carolinian of the Year.

corey@wilsontimes.com -- 265-7821