NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · GEORGIA · Freedom of Information · April 17, 2006
Atlanta’s bids for racing hall, Super Bowl must be public
April 17, 2006 · Atlanta’s bids to build a NASCAR hall of fame and host the Super Bowl in three years must be open to the public because the bids pledged millions of taxpayer dollars and were received by public employees, the Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled.
A three-judge panel ruled April 11 to uphold a trial court ruling that Central Atlanta Progress, which along with the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce submitted bids for both projects, “systematically and purposefully sought to evade the Open Records Act by permitting public officials to review the documents, and then retrieving the records in order to prevent them from reaching government files,” Judge Edward H. Johnson wrote for the appeals court.
He noted testimony from a mayoral manager who stated that the bid documents were consciously collected at the groups’ private meetings “so that individuals in the room who were subject to the Open Records Act would not have them in their possession.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested the bids under Georgia’s Open Records Act in 2005, but the Chamber of Commerce and Central Atlanta Progress said they were not subject to disclosure under the law. The newspaper asked the Georgia attorney general for an opinion on the matter and he agreed the bids should be disclosed.
When the groups again refused disclosure, Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker sued to force release, and the Journal-Constitution joined Baker in the lawsuit. The Superior Court in Atlanta ruled that the groups intentionally attempted to evade the Open Records Act by working with and discussing the bid records with public employees, but keeping them away from public officials’ possession in an attempt to circumvent disclosure under the law.
The appellate court agreed that the public employees had “received” the bid records as defined in the law, and must disclose them.
“This means that when government agencies are involved in preparing bids, those records will be made available to the public,” said Tom Clyde, an attorney for the Journal-Constitution. “We thought there was a mountain of evidence that demonstrated these records are subject to the Open Records Act.”
Baker praised the appeals court’s decision to uphold his and the superior court’s opinion as affirmation that “taxpayers have a right to know what their elected representatives are doing and how their tax dollars are being spent.” He, as well as the court, noted the importance of an open government. “Transparency in government is the best way to foster public trust in government,” he said.
The NASCAR bid cost about $500,000 to prepare; $300,000 of that came directly from public entities, court documents showed. The NASCAR bid also indicated that about $30 million of the estimated cost of the facility would have come from public sources. The court estimated the public cost to host the Super Bowl at around $3.7 million.
The private groups which put together the bids said they will not appeal the decision allowing citizen access to these records, but argued their rationale for withholding them is to improve Atlanta’s chances of receiving similar events in the future.
“Forcing us to detail those negotiations in the press will hand our competitors the keys to victory,” said Chamber of Commerce President Sam A. Williams and Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson in a joint statement. “We disagree with this opinion and its implications, but we respect the court and will abide by its order.”
(Central Atlanta Progress, Inc. v. Baker, Media Counsel: Peter Canfield & Tom Clyde, Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, Atlanta) — CZ