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Economic talks bill fails again

Jeff Mullis

Jeff Mullis

COVINGTON -- A bill that would have allowed discussions pertaining to economic development to be held in closed meetings is dead, at least for this year.

Senate Bill 159 did not come up for a vote before Crossover Day on Wednesday, the 30th day of the legislative session and last day a bill can transfer to the other chamber and still have time to pass.

The bill would have exempted 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 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 said it would 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.

The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce supported the bill, saying it would allow Newton County to be more competitive, while the executive director of Rockdale County's Economic Development Council director said it had its faults and virtues.

"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," Glenn Sears said. "With that said, how the hell did we get Kia from Alabama and NCR Corp.?"

A similar measure failed in 2005 due to media scrutiny and public outcry.

News Editor Jay Jones contributed to this story.