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By Aaron Gould Sheinin

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many of the Republicans and Democrats who want to be the next governor of Georgia met on Thursday to discuss the state's future at a candidates' forum sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

But what was said there is apparently a secret as the chamber denied requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other outlets to cover the panel discussion at the Ritz-Carlton at Reynolds Plantation, which sits along Lake Oconee.

The closing of the forum to the media prompted protests from the AJC and other publications that are part of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. Thirteen daily newspapers that cover Georgia, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, have joined together to cover this year's elections.

Chamber spokeswoman Joselyn Baker said Wednesday that it is the chamber's "standard policy" to close board meetings to the media.

Yet, at a forum Wednesday before the chamber board for candidates for attorney general, a reporter for the Fulton County Daily Report was allowed to cover the discussion. Asked why that forum was seemingly open and the governor's forum was closed, Ms. Baker responded that Ed Bean, the editor for the Report, was the moderator at the attorney general's forum, so his reporter was allowed to cover it.

In an e-mail to Ms. Baker and to the gubernatorial campaigns on Thursday, Bert Roughton, managing editor of the AJC, called the move to close the gubernatorial forum "outrageous."

"Have Georgia politicians not heard the powerful desire voters have to be included in deliberations that can set the course of their government? Apparently not," Mr. Roughton said in the message.

Chris Carpenter, campaign manager for former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat now seeking another term, said Mr. Roughton was correct.

"In a time when Georgians and Americans are losing confidence in their government and institutions, we should have more transparency," Mr. Carpenter wrote. He said the former governor "has always had a policy of openness. So, it was a lapse in judgment for Governor Barnes to attend a public forum that shut out the people."

Several campaigns said they were unaware the forum was closed.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, a Republican candidate for governor, said he was dismayed the press was excluded.

"I got there and I was thinking, 'Good grief. A political forum can't even get the press here.' Apparently they weren't invited," Chapman said.

Jeff DiSantis, campaign manager for Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat running for governor, said Mr. Baker hopes that in the future, "all organizations hosting candidate forums and debates will allow media access. It's the right thing to do."

Brian Robinson, spokesman for former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., also a candidate for governor, said Mr. Deal appears at forums every week welcomes "the media's interest."

Ben Fry, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Eric Johnson, a former state senator, said, "If the chamber wants to have another forum that is open to the press, he will gladly participate in that as well."

Terry Dickson of the Georgia Times-Union contributed to this article.

Contact Aaron Gould Sheinin at asheinin@ajc.com

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