Of course not. In fact, the public’s interest would be undermined. But that’s not stopping a pair of legislators in neighboring Cobb County from leading a push to keep the public from learning what it needs to know.
State Reps. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) and John Carson (R-northeast Cobb) are co-sponsors of House Bill 976. It would prevent the public from having access to the payroll and personnel records of private contractors (and their subcontractors) who provide services of any kind on public property.
The state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Act is designed to protect the public’s interests as much as possible — not the self-serving interests of elected officials or the private sector. Yet the changes proposed by Ehrhart and Carson would shift the balance heavily against the public’s interest.
Private companies who work for government do so by choice, and they know what the law is when they choose to seek that work. We’re sure many if not most of them would prefer to keep their records private, but that clearly would be inimical to the public’s best interest.
Ehrhart contends that Open Records requests are being used simply to gain access to the payroll records of private businesses, although when pressed by areporter he was unable to provide a single example of such an incident.
Ehrhart also gave a hypothetical example of a sheetrock contractor who employs thousands of people, only two of whom work for local government. He claims that means all of the company’s personnel records are now open to the public.
Not so, says Georgia Press Association attorney and First Amendment expert David Hudson of Augusta. He says the only records available by law to the public under Ehrhart’s example would be those of the two workers in question.
“The law is needed even for a sheet rock contractor,” Hudson added. “Is the contractor using undocumented workers? If it is cost plus, is the payroll padded? Are workers employed only because they are related to public officials of the agency? These are just samples of why public oversight is necessary when the funding is coming from public funds.”
Hudson also countered with a hypothetical example of his own.
“A local government hires a private contractor to perform the maintenance work on local government vehicles,” he suggested. “A series of accidents occur and they are blamed on maintenance defects in the vehicles.”
Yet the public would be prohibited from gaining access to the personnel records of the contractor’s employees, if the changes pushed by Ehrhart and Carson are passed.
“In fact, it was a similar type request that uncovered school bus drivers without proper licenses, or with bad driving records, employed by a private contractor hired by the Atlanta School Board some years ago,” Hudson said.
Added director Holly Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation: “This would reverse decades of progress that our state has made in recognizing that private contractors must agree to appropriate public scrutiny when they are performing a government function, including providing service on public property.”
Critics have suggested Ehrhart might be pushing the bill on behalf of the Atlanta Braves, who will be building a $672 million stadium in Cobb with $300 million in public dollars. Ehrhart is the one who first brought the Braves and Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee together, and some wonder if his bill is part of an effort to help the Braves shield details of the stadium’s construction from the public.
“The best joke I’ve heard all day,” Ehrhart responded to the MDJ, adding such critics “need to readjust their tin foil hats.”
In addition, Braves Executive VP Mike Plant told the MDJ on Thursday his organization has no interest in such a bill.
That’s greatly encouraging. However, Ehrhart’s effort to water down the sunshine laws would leave the door wide open to a repeat here and elsewhere around the state of what happened with the construction of the new Cobb Superior Court Building, when it was discovered the contractors and subcontractors involved were using substantial numbers of workers who were illegal aliens. Your tax dollars were being used to pay people to do jobs that should have been performed by those here legally.
Mocking the public’s right to governmental transparency is bad government — and as Ehrhart should know — bad politics as well.
And if Ehrhart and Carson want to serve the best interests of taxpayers and the public, they will deep-six their bill.