Atlanta (Ga.) Journal-Constitution (pg. A17)  [Printer-friendly version]
October 5, 2006


By Mike Kingstaff

Three topics to think about between now and Nov. 7:

** Secrecy as a state issue. You won't hear Republican state legislative candidates talk about it, but if the GOP retains control of the House and Senate in November, look for a renewed effort to gut Georgia's sunshine laws in the name of economic development.

The GOP leadership in the House, as well as Gov. Sonny Perdue, are still smarting over House Bill 218, the 2005 measure that would have cloaked state and local economic development negotiations in secrecy. The bill steamrolled through the House but got hung up in the Senate after a storm of constituent protest.

The measure, among other things, would have allowed unelected boards to provide incentives for companies to build incinerators, waste disposal sites or other job-creating businesses without having to disclose them publicly until after the deal had been negotiated.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) told the Waycross Journal Herald last week that he expects the bill to come back in the 2007 session. Shutting the public out of economic development decisions isn't a bad thing, Richardson believes. If voters don't like the decisions political leaders make, they can turn them out of office at the next election. Perdue and his economic development advisers apparently feel the same way.

But support for HB 218 is not uniform in Republican circles. State Sen. Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville) who is running for lieutenant governor, said he opposes the measure. Economic development officials have failed to make the case that Georgia has lost any new employers because of the state's sunshine laws, Cagle said. And Republican attorney general candidate Perry McGuire, a former legislator, also has declared that the state should not weaken the Open Records and Open Meetings laws.

** Secrecy as a local issue. Gwinnett voters don't have a choice in the race for two school board seats next month. Dan Seckinger and Robert McClure are unchallenged in their bids for re-election. But the board they serve on wants to renew the school district's 1 percent sales tax for another five years to buy land and build new schools -- a tax that, if passed, is expected to generate about $1 billion in revenue.

There's little question the new schools are needed. Gwinnett is by far the largest district in the state and still growing. It projects an enrollment of nearly 175,000 by 2010. If a sales tax isn't approved, the board will have to float bonds to build the 37 new schools on the drawing board, and a bond issue would probably cost taxpayers more in the long run.

Gwinnett's school district does a lot of things right. It is one of the best in the state. But it has a bad habit of conducting important public business in secret, working on the same theory Richardson has -- if voters don't like what they do they can say so in the next election. Gwinnett's school board, for instance, envelops the whole land-buying process in total secrecy -- no word of a school's location or land price is disclosed until the deal is closed. Gwinnett voters should make the board earn their vote on the sales tax by first promising to let voters in on the decisions about how and where to spend the $1 billion.

** The candidate's secret political life. There was a time in Cobb County, not that long ago, where Democrats rarely promoted their party affiliation. The Republican stronghold on the county was so dominant that even incumbent Democrats didn't want to draw attention to the label, for fear it would hurt them at election time. But the demographics of the county are changing quickly. And Democrats seem to be making a comeback.

Which is why it is so interesting to see that the Republican nominee for the Cobb County school board seat in east Cobb is complaining that his opponent isn't identifying herself enough as a Democrat.

The Rev. John Crooks, who won the GOP nomination in a crowded race over the summer, is accusing Dr. Beth Farokhi, a retired educator who was unopposed for her party's nomination, of running a stealth Democratic campaign for the school board. "I'm running as an educator who is a Democrat," Farokhi says, adding that she thinks partisan elections for the school board are an anachronism that should have been abolished years ago.

For that matter, Crooks is running as a minister who is a Republican. Republicans have dominated the much-maligned seven-member school board in recent years. The school board candidates who ought to be hiding their party affiliation in Cobb County are Republicans, not Democrats.

** Mike King is a member of the editorial board. His column runs Thursdays.

Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution