Open Government and Recruitment
There should be no conflict with open government and industrial recruiting in Georgia. Many economic developers believe Georgia’s open records laws hamper their efforts to bring jobs to their communities. They cite specific examples of being asked by industrial prospects to sign nondisclosure agreements when prospects don’t want their name mentioned or their interest in moving a plant known to the public until they feels it’s proper. Many feel media intrusion conflicts with this requirement.
Economic developers believe if the interest is made public too soon, other states can peer into the negotiations, find out what incentives the community is offering and use this knowledge to make counter offers and steal the industry away. The economic developers with whom I have spoken understand the public has the right to see what tax concessions for roads, infrastructure, demographics, traffic or waste disposal are offered before the deal is signed by local governments. But they want the right to negotiate in secret and then make details available to the public before the up or down vote by the elected government agency.
To them, it’s a matter of timing. Media interests feel they should be able to report any government activity, anytime, anywhere. The recent court battle between Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Attorney General regarding bids for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the 2009 Super Bowl brought this issue to a head.
Last year, the AJC was denied documents relating to the bids and asked for a ruling from Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who issued an opinion that the documents should be made public. Both institutions, CAP and the Metro Chamber, refused and the Attorney General brought suit. The issue made its way to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which held for Baker. The court ruled that the purpose of the Open Records Act should be broadly construed to encourage public access.
The court case made it look like “the media” won a great victory, and Georgia’s economic development community lost a major tool for attracting new industry to the state. Yet this perception is incorrect. No one won or lost anything, because the Open Records Act already provides exemptions so developers can negotiate out of the public eye, and also it gives public access before the deal is finalized by local and state governments.
In the NASCAR case, the prospect’s identity was already known, because this was a highly publicized competition among several major U.S. cities. But, if a local development authority, or the state’s Department of Economic Development wishes to keep the identity of an industrial prospect secret, all that’s required under current practice is that the prospect not be identified in any documented record until the parties wish the identity to be made public.
Industrial developers have also taken the approach of not documenting a prospect’s actual name, but referring to it by a color or a number until it’s time for disclosure. Industrial prospects can work with the government via a third party, such as an attorney or real estate agent, so the principal business entity’s name isn’t disclosed in a document until time for public approval.
This explanation of the Georgia Open Records Act is meant to clear up any confusion that gives the impression that the media is against job formation and recruitment of industry in our state. We in the media want Georgia’s economic developers to be successful. We’re cheering them on, and want to report their successes.
We live in an open and free society. Any special concessions from state and local governments should be open to the taxpaying public. The current law provides economic developers methods to keep talks with prospects private, and it also makes them open to public at a proper time. With a few exceptions, Georgia has prospered and successfully recruited industries under the current law. In fact, Atlanta’s loss of the NASCAR facility had nothing to do with open records. Atlanta lost to Charlotte before the appeals court decision.
There should be no conflict between open government and industrial recruiting. It has not occurred in the past, and it should not in the future.
Neely Young is editor in chief and publisher of Georgia Trend. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.