Wave of bills threatens to close government

By Justin Boron

Clayton County resident Margie Trawick discovered a secret and all it took was asking for a few maps and memos.

A subdivision of more than 300 houses was coming to her neighborhood and before she got hold of the documents, it was a mystery.

Trawick used the information from plat maps and zoning applications to rally neighbors and elected officials to block the development she said would destroy the way of life in her rural community.

Open records have proven a vital tool for citizens to monitor the government's actions and for uncovering future development in communities across the nation.

But several pieces of legislation coming out of the General Assembly this year would work to obfuscate government business and have drawn torrents of criticism from watchdog and rights groups.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia has even criticized the Republican-led General Assembly for its "sudden great assault on openness in government."

Speaking at a ceremony where he was honored for his commitment to public disclosure, Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said, " 'Public officers are the trustees of the people. It follows then the trustees should hide nothing from the beneficiaries of that trust.'"

One of the bills heavily scrutinized by rights groups has been HB 218, which would allow governments to negotiate economic development in secret.

Opponents say the bill could hide industrial and business projects that are potentially harmful to a community.

"I am afraid that if darkness is allowed to cloak public contracts and public business, it could well result in paving the road to economic hell for our citizens," Fletcher said.

But some in local government say without the bill, protecting negotiations that many companies want kept private is impossible.

Emory Brock, the Clayton County director of economic development, said on more than one occasion, deals with a business that would have created jobs for the community failed after the public or media discovered them.

On this platform, the bill slammed through the House of Representatives.

But it has since died in the Senate amid heavy pressure from rights groups.

Senate President pro-tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, a key backer of the plan, said it needs more work to balance the government's needs with concerns from the media and public interest groups.

"I don't anticipate anything changing to cause the Senate to take up (HB) 218," Johnson said.

Although he voted for it, Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough said the bill was flawed and probably needed to be reworded before it came out of the House.

However, he refuted the claim that there has been a trend away from openness in the Legislature.

"I don't think we've got this attack on open records," Lunsford said.

Georgia is not the only place where the government has been criticized for cordoning off parts of its business from the public.

David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said other states have added exemptions to open records, some of which may be justified given the escalating fear of terrorism and identity theft.

"On the other hand, some of the attempts to close public access is just the age old tendency of government officials to want to conduct public business without the burden of the public looking over their shoulders and second guessing what is done," he said.

Another bill sent through the House concealed the source of donations to public colleges.

Sponsors of House Bill 340 say it was intended to protect the privacy of donors rather than intrude on the public's right to know.

Democratic leaders opposed the bill.

"It's terrible," said House Democratic Leader Dubose Porter, who is also a newspaper publisher. "They want to close off access to information on their donors. The problem is, when people are making conditions on these gifts, you'll never know it."

The conditions, Hudson said, could come into play if the donator comes up for a contract and personnel action.

"What if the big donors or their affiliated businesses ended up receiving favorable contracts with the university or with an athletic team?" he asked "What if big donors had relatives who received special treatment in hiring or retention?

"If privacy is really what the donator is concerned about there is already a mechanism to conceal their identity," Hudson said.

"If a donor truly wants confidentiality, he or she can have the gift made through an attorney, accountant or financial institution," he said.

The following also are bills that have raised the brows of activist groups looking to protect openness in the government.

? HB 437 closes information of public school employees in records that include the home address, telephone number, or the social security number of the employee.

? HB 684 expands personnel exception to open meetings act and adds secrecy provision to personnel disputes including a third party

? SB 121 adds exception to open records law to close information about toll road users.

? SB 153 expands definition of public records to include university police records.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.