published Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Georgia bill would keep business location talks secret

by Andy Johns

A Northwest Georgia senator has introduced a bill in the Legislature to keep secret talks between government and businesses negotiating to come to an area.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said his Senate Bill 159 is good for economic development because it would ease companies’ fears that trade secrets might be disclosed under Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Under Mullis’ proposal, any details of what a company is, does, or what it would do would be secret until the negotiations are complete.

As executive director of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority in Walker County, Mullis said if businesses are worried about their plans leaking out they will head elsewhere to states like Tennessee, which already keeps such negotiations secret while they’re in progress.

“We just want companies to have the confidence that their trade secrets will be secure,” Mullis said.

But Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, sees the bill as keeping taxpayers in the dark.

“SB 159 undermines open government and citizen oversight of government,” Manheimer said. “The public has a right to review information in the hands of its government, and this type of information is of the utmost interest and concern to the community.”

Shrouding negotiations could have bad results for property owners near a development, said Neill Herring, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club. A county could negotiate over a landfill or an industry that could affect nearby property and residents would have no input until contracts were signed, Herring said.

“It will be like the Wild West,” Herring said.

Similar legislation has been introduced before and died because of public outcry.

Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene said he doesn’t want to hide information from taxpayers, but he understands a company’s desire to protect information to keep a competitive advantage.

“If we can be allowed some level of confidentiality until a decision is made, I think that’s important,” he said.

He said some companies, including the Costco Wholesale club that opened in Fort Oglethorpe in October, are very sensitive to keeping talks private.

“We want government to be transparent; however, in cases where it’s critical that some confidentiality can be maintained ... that should be protected,” said Greene.

The Mullis bill is in the Senate Economic Development Committee.

Staff writer Andy Johns and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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