Whenever you hear an elected official say they support the concept of “transparency” in government, you really shouldn’t take them seriously. They usually don’t mean what they’re saying.
It is sad but true that a great many of Georgia’s politicians have no intention of being transparent about the actions they take. Their goal is to keep people in the dark, and if a citizen is rude enough to complain about what elected officials are doing, they tell them to shut up.
You will see this contempt for the public at every level of government, but seldom as outrageously as a few years ago when Tim Lee, the chairman of the Cobb County Commission, was working out a secret deal to build a new baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves.
Lee finagled an arrangement to commit nearly $400 million in public funds on a fancy new stadium for the Braves without bothering to tell the other commissioners or taxpayers what he was up to.
If you were a Cobb resident and thought your tax dollars would be better spent on schools or roads or police protection, you were slap out of luck. Lee put his scheme into play without holding a referendum or giving critics any say in the matter.
When several citizens tried to express their opposition to the Braves giveaway at a commission meeting, Lee refused to let them speak and had them removed by police. He wasn’t interested in hearing any dissenting opinions.
Lee’s actions are a vivid illustration of why the state should have an open records law that requires full disclosure of these kinds of activities by elected officials. There should also be an open meetings law that allows citizens to speak their minds on issues without fear of being dragged away by law enforcement officers.
Past attempts to enact such laws, however, have run aground.
When Roy Barnes was governor, the Legislature passed and he signed an expansive open records act. After Barnes left office, that law was eroded by the passage of subsequent bills creating various loopholes and exemptions to keep certain records hidden from public view.
The General Assembly tried again in 2012, at the urging of Attorney General Sam Olens, and adopted another open records bill that was intended to revise and strengthen the law already on the books.
The shortcomings in that law became evident the next year when Tim Lee started meeting secretly with Atlanta Braves’ executives.
There was a new attack on the open records law in this year’s legislative session with the passage of SB 323.
The bill will allow any state agency, not just the Department of Economic Development, to keep secret public records involving an economic development project “until the economic development project is secured by binding commitment.”
SB 323 was amended late in the session so that it also allows athletic departments at public universities to stall for 90 days before responding to any requests for public records, except for those related to non-clerical salaries.
This means that coaches and athletic directors who work at taxpayer-supported public institutions can hide what they’re doing from public view for as long as three months.
The amendment was written to help Kirby Smart, the new football coach at the University of Georgia, keep his recruiting activities under wraps, but there is the potential for all sorts of abuse of this provision.
If college athletes are disciplined in a sexual assault case, for example, or if coaches make illegal payments to entice recruits, the new law would make it easier to hide any records related to those actions.
I’m sure Kirby Smart is a fine person with a lovely wife and family, but that’s not a good enough reason to hide records that should be open to the public.
As this column is being written, Gov. Nathan Deal hasn’t indicated what action he will take on SB 323. Olens, the onetime champion of open records, has said he won’t ask the governor to veto it. “I play a bigger role in potential bills that I think strongly need to be vetoed,” Olens told a reporter.
Government transparency is a great thing for journalists and taxpayers in general. Maybe one day we’ll actually have it in Georgia.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.