Psst… Georgia’s culture of secrecy thrives in a time of ‘transparency’
By Tom Baxter
Want to know the biggest issue currently looming over state and local government? It’s a secret. Or to be more precise, it’s secrecy itself.
Secrecy has assumed a higher profile recently because of the important role it played in the deal to move the Braves to Cobb County. But secrecy is also at the root of the biggest story one county over, in Paulding.
In a lot of ways, the plan approved by the airport authority a year ago last week to bring commercial airline service to the Paulding Airport is the first cousin to the Braves stadium deal. Except that in Paulding there’s no ball team in the mix and the reaction now that the deal has been disclosed has been considerably less celebratory. Opponents have filed a lawsuit, and Delta has voiced its opposition to the plan.
The same set of attitudes that caused the Paulding airport authority to hold an executive session the day before Thanksgiving, then approve a lease agreement that amounted to a major expansion in a brief public meeting, reach up into state government as well. The secrecy begins with the vast network of development authorities created by the state, and obliged by state law only to disclose their private dealings essentially to themselves. And it’s the way a lot of state business is done.
You know there’s a problem at the state level when the ethics commission is rebranded as the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, and then holds a closed meeting before approving an outside investigation of its operations by the state auditor. The irony of that gets hardly a notice, so deeply has the habit of secrecy taken hold.
Privacy has often been treated as a government prerogative, but it is being increasingly confronted by new technology and new attitudes about openness in government. When a citizen activist, Nydia Tisdale, showed up last year with a video camera at a meeting of the Cumming City Council, Mayor H. Ford Gravitt promptly had her thrown out. By another irony, Gov. Nathan Deal on the same day signed the Open Meetings Act, which Attorney General Sam Olens later ruled had been violated by the mayor’s action. Tisdale has also filed a federal suit.
But to say that privacy has become more of an issue does not say that there has been a galloping hurry to do something about it. Senior Superior Court Judge Robert Adamson ordered a mediation session between Olens and Gravitt to settle the matter, but that seems not to have come to anything. It would appear that Gravitt is standing his ground.
One argument for privacy in government is that these days, it’s the only way to get things done. That seems to have been the lesson drawn in the contrast between the failed transportation initiative and the successful deal in which the Braves got their new stadium and Cobb got major league cred.
But it’s worth remembering that a secret, by its nature, is always known by somebody, or in the case of deals like this, several somebodies. The boom in real estate activity in the area around the planned stadium suggests the somebodies in that deal could reap quite a payoff.
“Where I come from, a man who calls someone up at 2:30 in the morning is up to no good,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said back during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. Something similar could be said about executive sessions and disclosure agreements and the various other means by which secrecy finds a way to thrive in an era when transparency is the buzz word. When a board or a commission makes something a secret, it’s because there’s something they don’t want people to know about. In some cases their intentions may be good, just as some 2:30 a.m. calls may be innocent. But they are always suspicious.
Whether secrecy becomes a full-bodied political issue depends on what the candidates and the voters make of it. Secrecy can mean one thing when the cat which comes out of the bag is broadly popular, as in the stadium deal, and quite another when it isn’t.