Atlanta Braves pitchers and catchers are basking under the Florida sun as they prepare for the 2014 baseball season. Meanwhile, dark clouds could be forming in Atlanta to obscure details of public spending on the team’s proposed $672 million stadium.
Georgia's sunshine law, with some exceptions, requires disclosure of all records regarding spending of public funds. The law applies even to documents held by private businesses doing work for public agencies, such as those who will do the construction of the Cobb County stadium, which will be publicly owned once it’s completed.
Two Cobb legislators are co-sponsoring House Bill 796, which would create a new exemption for personnel and payroll records of government contractors working on public property. The exemption would apply to the Braves’ new home, as well as the Falcons’ new stadium—not to mention construction of roads, bridges, and schools across Georgia. In theory, the exemption could extend to any outsourced government function that's performed in a public building.
Representatives John Carson (R-Marietta) and Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), co-sponsors of the bill, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. In a Marietta Daily Journal article published last week, however, Ehrhart said that the bill was intended to preserve workers' right to privacy and scoffed at suggestions that it was meant to protect the Braves from scrutiny. “I think they need to readjust their tin foil hat,” he told the MDJ.
Critics contend the bill would remove an important level of oversight over the public's $300 million investment in the stadium. "A company that holds a public contract should be accountable to the right of the people to see exactly how their tax dollars are being spent," said William Perry, director of Common Cause Georgia. "Bills like this add to the erosion of Georgia's once fairly decent transparency laws."
A House subcommittee heard testimony on the bill last week and is scheduled to take up the matter again this morning.
"This would reverse decades of progress," Hollie Manheimer wrote in a February 7 letter to subcommittee chair representative Barry Fleming (R-Harlem). Government contractors, she said, need to accept a level of transparency so citizens "can confirm that public money is being spent wisely on qualified personnel." (Click here to download a copy of Manheimer’s letter.)
In 2011, private payroll records showed that a lobbyist who underwrote a $17,000 junket for House Speaker David Ralston was also a DOT subcontractor charging $330 an hour for his services. Similar records have helped news organizations identify unqualified school bus drivers and expose sham pass-through contracting firms.
Braves executives and Commission Chairman Tim Lee have been noncommittal when asked whether stadium spending would be subject to public disclosure under the Georgia Open Records Act. Plant told me in December that he hadn't thought about it, while Lee said the matter would be addressed in ongoing discussions with the team.