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Crawford: Dont let them keep us in the dark
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For one brief shining moment, it looked like Georgia's political leadership really might be in favor of strengthening the state laws that require governments to conduct their business openly and make their official records available to the public.

Newspaper executives who came to Atlanta a couple of weeks ago for their annual "publisher's day" at the General Assembly learned that Attorney General Sam Olens had drafted a bill that would make significant improvements in the open records act.

"Georgians deserve a clear, coherent law that enforces good government practices and allows them to hold their elected officials accountable," Olens said.

Better yet, the top leaders in the House and Senate indicated they were supportive of Olens' objectives.

"I think it's something we're going to look at with a lot of favor," House Speaker David Ralston said.

"Openness in government is something that I've always been in favor of and will continue to be in favor of, and I will support Attorney General Sam Olens," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle agreed.

When you're dealing with the folks at the capitol complex, don't just listen to what they say. It's far more instructive to watch what they do.

On the very same day that Olens was sending out news releases touting his proposal for sweeping revisions in Georgia's open records act, a small group of state senators introduced a bill, designated as SB 159, that would accomplish precisely the opposite of what Olens wants to do.

SB 159 would allow local government officials to keep secret all records related to their negotiations with private businesses that might be interested in opening a facility in their county.

Any information related to these economic development projects, the bill states, "shall not be subject to any mandatory public disclosure requirement, and no document or record containing information about such private economic development project shall constitute a matter of public record."

This information would only be made available to the public after the economic development deal has been officially announced, the bill says. In other words, your county commissioner or mayor can cut a deal to bring in a private business and you not only will not be told about it, you won't even be able to get copies of the relevant public documents until after deed has been done.

"Companies are concerned about their trade secrets," said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the lead sponsor of SB 159. "We want them to be sure their trade secrets will remain confidential."

I don't think Mullis has any evil intentions, but here's what SB 159 would mean in the real world: you might wake up one morning and discover that your local elected officials had signed an agreement with private developers to put a landfill, or a rendering plant, or a big-box store on the property next to yours.

Under SB 159, this would have been done with no notice given to the public. If someone had heard rumors that plans were afoot to bring in a new business, they would not be allowed under SB 159 to have access to public documents related to that "economic development project" until after all the contracts had been signed.

Here's what it also could mean: Your mayor or county commissioner could cut a sweetheart deal with their relatives or cronies to provide them with generous tax abatements and free roads and sewers for their proposed project. You wouldn't know anything about this because all of the information about it could legally be kept secret from the public.

Does that sound like a bad deal to you? It should.

Newspaper editors and journalists are the ones who complain about government secrecy, but bills like SB 159 affect the basic rights of every taxpayer and resident of Georgia. Your local government is only able to operate because of the taxes and fees that you pay. It is the fundamental right of every citizen, not just the editors of the local newspaper, to have access at all times to the public records of how their tax money is being spent.

If you are concerned about what your local officials are doing, you should communicate your feelings about SB 159 to your legislator. Don't let them keep you in the dark.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on