Cost cuts conflict with openness

ATLANTA --- Two philosophies of the Republicans who control Georgia's 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.

Freshmen Republican Sens. John Albers of Roswell and Frank Ginn of Danielsville are carrying legislation at the instruction of Senate leaders because both had served in local government, and Ginn has been a city manager and a county administrator. Their Senate Bill 86 would remove requirements that local governments conduct extensive land-use planning. The bill also removes planning required for the handling of solid waste.

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

The argument for the planning is that it forces officials to think long-term and 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 the impact of such projects on roads and natural resources spans 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 another county.

When Albers and Ginn announced their bill, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said it 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County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association distributed a list of 25 requirements they want repealed.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 the local retirement system, solid-waste management, 911 operations and hotel-motel tax collections. Plus, they want to raise the threshold for purchases that must be open to public bids from $100,000.

As much as the Republicans have called for cost savings, they have also sought greater openness. Still, 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 access information.

At separate appearances before the Press Association last week, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and Attorney General Sam Olens -- all of whom have experienced time as underdogs -- expressed their support for the notion of greater openness.

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

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 it's long tenure in the minority to dominance of every statewide office.


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