While efforts by new Attorney General Sam Olens have aimed at shining more light on government -- something we applaud here at the opening of Sunshine Week -- a much less visible effort is being launched in the Georgia Senate to hide critical information from the public.
And as Georgia newspapers brought the Senate bill to the public's attention, a new one has been filed to give legislators who are against open government a hammer with which to retaliate if newspapers don't shut up and fall in line.
Sen. Jeff E. Mullis, R-Chickamauga, has introduced SB 159, which would enable local governments -- along with agencies that are subject to the state's Open Records and Open Meetings Laws -- to hide information from the public regarding economic development.
Under the proposed bill, any meetings that public officials have with companies that might locate, expand or even stay in a Georgia community are hidden away from public view and no documents related to those discussions or enticements are releasable by anyone involved in the project, whether a private individual or a public one. It is only when the company is ready to announce its expansion, relocation or decision to stay --- or that the development project has been abandoned -- that any records become accessible to the public. The secrecy was narrowed to apply to state agencies, but local government would simply engage in local/state hybrid projects and hide under the state cloak as well.
As a result, it's only when the cow is out of the barn that the average resident will have any idea that there was a cow in the first place, or that the local government used that resident's tax money to build the barn, install utilities and pave a four-lane road right up to it.
Oh, and if you didn't particularly want the smell of a barn, or a privately owned landfill, for that matter, near your home, you wouldn't know about it until the deal was done.
Mullis claims that Georgia lost the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a Volkswagen plant because of the state's openness and says he thinks companies won't look at Georgia because their trade secrets could be revealed. Forgive us for being skeptical of those claims.
Trade secret protection, however, isn't the core issue. The core issue is keeping taxpayers blind to whatever sweetheart deals and incentives, including those that will be paid by those taxpayers, a business is offered. That might benefit a community planner like Mullis, but there is no benefit to the public and no legitimate business need for it.
But somebody somewhere wants a secret deal cut in Georgia pretty badly. So now SB 249 has been introduced, also by development planner Mullis. At first glance, it simply adds another requirement for local governments to announce called meetings -- posting notice on their respective websites. In practice, it's being held over newspapers as a vehicle for a substitution that would snatch legal advertisements from those newspapers. If you ask your legislator, he or she might laugh off this suggestion, but the threat is there -- either fall in line with allowing more government secrecy or risk losing revenue in already tough economic times. No doubt, there are politicians who would love to see newspapers crippled economically, since that would effectively improve their chances of sliding deals past the taxpaying public with no one being the wiser.
Neither of these bills is needed. Local governments already can post their called meeting notices on their websites, and they shouldn't need a statute to encourage them to use another avenue to serve their constituents.
So, here at the beginning of Sunshine Week, the week that recognizes the benefits that federal and state freedom of information laws provide to the public, Georgia newspapers are facing a hard choice -- fight for Georgia citizens or risk revenue.
It's really no choice. You do what's right.
We urge you to call your senator now and demand that he take a stand against both of these bills. Government needs more sunlight, not another shady deal.
The unsigned editorials reflect the opinion of the Citizen newspapers. Columns, letters to the editor and cartoons reflect the opinions of the individuals who penned them.