Critics argue the legislation flies in the face of transparency.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) and Rep. John Carson (R-northeast Cobb) have co-sponsored House Bill 976, which would hide from public view the payroll and personnel records of private contractors being paid to perform services on public property. The bill would also shield subcontractors.
Such records are available to the public now under the Georgia Open Records Act.
That’s because taxpayers and citizens have a “keen interest” in private companies who do public work, said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Records available to the public under the state’s current Open Records law include salary information, safety records and disciplinary actions along with other documents used to conduct government business.
“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,” Manheimer said.
Ehrhart argues allowing salary information to be accessed by the public violates basic privacy.
“My understanding is people are beginning to use open records requests for the sole purpose of gaining records of private and private businesses payroll records,” Ehrhart said. He declined to provide an example of such an incident.
Ehrhart posed a hypothetical situation in which a sheet rock contractor performs thousands of jobs
in one year with two being government contracts. Two out of the contractor’s 500 employees work on the government project but all of the company’s personnel records are now open to the public.
“I can’t imagine that this is even controversial,” Ehrhart said.
But David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said Ehrhart’s example isn’t accurate. He said under current law only those employees engaging in government work are subject to public records laws, not the company’s entire staff.
“The law is needed even for a sheet rock contractor,” Hudson said. “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.”
Carson, a co-sponsor along with three other lawmakers, did not return phone messages or emails by press time Wednesday.
Ehrhart disputes motivation is Braves
Manheimer argues private businesses are not obligated to contract with the government and taxpayers should be able to learn to whom their money is being paid for government work.
“No private contractor is ever required to perform services on a public facility. They choose to seek out public work paid for with taxpayer dollars,” Manheimer said. “In doing so, it is only appropriate that they accept a level of transparency with that role so that the citizens of this state can confirm that public money is being spent wisely on qualified personnel.”
Ehrhart doesn’t buy that argument and countered that employees’ records shouldn’t be open to review because the company “they happen to work for” does business with the government.
He maintains his only motivation in co-sponsoring the bill is protecting the privacy of individual employees.
Still, it was Ehrhart who first connected Cobb Chairman Tim Lee with Atlanta Braves executives before the $672 million stadium deal was hatched using $300 million in public dollars.
Though some critics allege the legislation has been introduced to protect contractors who may profit from the construction of the new stadium near Cumberland Mall, Ehrhart laughingly disputed that claim, calling it the “best joke he’s heard all day” and mocked his critics.
“I think they need to readjust their tin foil hat,” Ehrhart said. “Please quote me on that. Please ask them to adjust their tinfoil hat.”
Personnel records considered under 2012 revision
Hudson was in no laughing mood.
Hudson said he finds it difficult to justify what the bill’s sponsors want to accomplish. He said the media has always fought to keep records pertaining to public projects or contracts open to the public.
That’s the only way, he said, to ensure “funny business” does not take place.
“Consider this hypothetical,” Hudson said. “A local government hires a private contractor to perform the maintenance work on local government vehicles. A series of accidents occur and they are blamed on maintenance defects in the vehicles.”
If the public wanted to see personnel records of the contractor’s employees, those records would be closed under the proposed legislation.
“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.
Ehrhart disagrees with that example.
“I think it’s hyperbole and I don’t think it’s relevant,” Ehrhart said adding safety records would come out in any court proceedings that followed an accident.
Georgia’s Sunshine laws were revised in 2012, strengthening fines for governments that violate open records or open meeting laws, encouraging more meetings take place in open sessions and lowering costs governments may charge for information.
But payroll and personnel records weren’t exempted during those revisions to the Open Records Act.
“Perhaps we should take the position that these exceptions were comprehensively reviewed and revised by the office of the Attorney General and public interest advocates during the 2012 session, and without any dispute the requirement that these records be made open has been continued in the law,” Hudson said. “And it should remain that way to avoid any ability to abuse the bidding system by keeping key information secret.”