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Government openness meets efforts to save taxpayers money

ATLANTA --- Two philosophies of the Republicans who control Georgia government are heading toward a collision.

On one hand is their support for greater openness in the doings of government. On the other is their interest in saving taxpayers money by removing laws that prescribe specific government actions.

Hardly anyone would argue for secrecy and waste in government as a matter of principle. The challenge is when openness and efficiency collide.

Senate freshmen Republicans John Albers of Roswell and Frank Ginn of Danielsville are carrying legislation at the instruction of Senate leaders because both men had served in local government, and Mr. Ginn has been both a city manager and a county administrator.

Their Senate Bill 86 would remove state requirements that local governments conduct extensive land-use planning. SB 86 also removes planning required for the handling of solid waste.

They say that the plans are costly to produce and that no one ever looks at them except when a dispute winds up in court.

Those who favor the planning argue that it not only forces officials to think long term but also gives property owners information for making the best use of their land.

An aspect of the planning requirement is that huge real estate developments, termed developments of regional impact, are supposed to be coordinated with neighboring communities. The idea is that such projects have an impact on roads and natural resources that span city limits and county borders.

State coordination of public planning, so the reasoning goes, is vital because a resident of one county is unlikely to have much influence if he tries to change a development in the county next door.

When Mr. Albers and Mr. Ginn announced their bill at a Valentine's Day news conference, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said theirs was the first of a series of bills designed to remove requirements.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association distributed a list then of 25 requirements they want repealed.

The list includes ending official notices in the "legal organ," the county's main newspaper. Those notices range from a copy of the government's proposed budget and financial statement to calls for bidders on government projects. The associations say online notices are sufficient.

They want to end reports on local retirement systems, solid-waste management, 911 operations and hotel-motel tax collections.

They also want to raise from $100,000 the threshold for purchases that must be open to public bids.

As much as the Republicans have called for cost savings, they have also sought greater openness. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle explained why last week in a meeting with publishers and editors from the Georgia Press Association.

"Most of my years (in government) have been in the minority. And that's a different perspective from the newly elected individuals and individuals that have only served in the majority. And I think that's important," he said.

Information is power, as they say, and majority parties tend to want to keep it to themselves and manage its release to minimize embarrassment. Those who have been in the minority typically try to use every tool available to gain access to information.

At separate appearances before the press association last week, Mr. Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and Attorney General Sam Olens -- who have all experienced time as underdogs -- expressed support for the notion of greater openness.

Mr. Olens drafted an overhaul of the state's Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act, which Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, was to introduce for him this week. The bills seek to clarify the law making government documents and meetings public except in a few limited exceptions.

Mr. Olens said he has been peppered with requests from government officials to expand the number of exceptions.

"I've had several requests to insert such language into the bill, and it's fair for you to assume I've said 'hell no' every time," he said.

Government officials complain that fetching documents is time consuming and expensive, even though the law already gives them the authority to charge for the time spent. However, it can only be at the rate of the lowest-paid employee qualified to retrieve the files.

The city of Savannah recently said that only the city manager was qualified. Mr. Olens called that claim poppycock.

As these bills move independently through the Legislature, the philosophical clash may not seem obvious.

But it is a growing pain of sorts as the GOP continues to make the transition from its long tenure in the minority to dominance of every statewide office.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He has been covering state government since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 783-8509 or on Twitter at MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, March 03, 2011

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