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Bill to limit access to project info

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

COVINGTON -- Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill that will keep discussions about economic development away from the prying eyes of the public.

The bill would exempt discussions pertaining to economic development projects by private entities from public disclosure requirements. Documents containing information about those projects would not be public record.

In other words, information about what a company does, what a project entails and where the project would locate would be off limits to residents. It would be up to the private developer to announce to the general public details about the project and only then would records be made public.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who introduced the bill, earns his living off economic development projects, serving as executive director of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority in Walker County. He has said the bill will help the state draw more industries and create more jobs. Companies currently bypass Georgia for fear trade secrets will be revealed, he said.

But those that advocate for open government think it will do more harm than good.

"Senate Bill 159 undermines open government and citizen oversight of government," said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "The public has a right to review information in the hands of its government, and this type of information is of the utmost interest and concern to the community. This bill would allow documents, even after being given to a public agency, to remain secret and this completely contravenes our state's open government laws."

Mullis has watered down the bill's language, making it applicable only to state agencies, such as the Department of Economic Development. But there is concern that local governments could claim state involvement on projects as justification for holding their discussions in private as well.

Glenn Sears, executive director of the Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council and a former Rockdale County commissioner, said he can see concerns from both sides of the debate. What tips the balance for him is Alabama, South Carolina, Florida and other states competing for business using Georgia's current open records laws against Georgia.

"If those other states have a law like this, and if they are using (Georgia's open records law) as a competitive advantage over Georgia, then it's something from a business standpoint and responsibility to the voters of the state that we have to do to gain equal footing and compete," Sears said. "With that said, how the hell did we get Kia from Alabama and NCR Corp.?"

Sears said there is legitimate concern for insider abuse and corruption that has to be considered and that frankly "people don't trust government anymore." He cited recent news of developers in Gwinnett County who profited on land sales for new schools as reason for concern.

Sears, also a former John Deere executive, said balancing protection of proprietary information with the public's right to know can be difficult in a competitive business environment.

Shannon Davis, business retention and expansion director with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said Georgia and West Virginia are the only two states east of the Mississippi River that do not have some form of confidentiality measures in place regarding economic development negotiations. Also, she said the bill won't affect any current legislation with respect to zoning, rezoning, land-use planning, and community master plans.

"Some opponents of the bill have concerns that government agencies could locate toxic, harmful industries next to homes, schools and children if this bill were to pass. The reality is that this bill changes no zoning laws. Any rezoning of property will still take place in a public forum, as it does at present," Davis said. She added that the bill does not block release of information but only delays it until the project negotiations are resolved.

"We are in favor of the passage of this bill, as it enables us to be more competitive in today's business climate," she said.

Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, who represents Newton and a portion of Rockdale counties, said he hasn't read the bill and didn't want to comment on whether he would support it. The bill is still in Rules Committee and may not make it to the Senate floor, he said. Wednesday is the 30th day of the session, known as Crossover Day. If the bill doesn't pass in the Senate and transfer to the House floor by that deadline, it's dead for the year.

News Editor Jay Jones contributed to this story.