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Good intentions and the law

Cal Beverly's picture

UPDATED OPINION — I filed an Open Records request to Peachtree City Monday afternoon of this week, asking them to produce for inspection all records and documents related to something called “Project Z.”

The city Thursday evening turned over a document that names the local company receiving our local tax money. It was not among the ones guessed by our online commenters.

If, however, you guessed it is a subsidiary of a large manufacturing company headquartered in mainland China, you win the golden fortune cookie. More below.

The City Council met in a special called morning session last week with just one item on the agenda. It was to “offer a job creation grant for the ‘Project Z’ expansion in the Peachtree City Industrial Park, according to the minutes of that meeting. The vote in the two-minute meeting was 4-to-0 in favor of the grant.

No amount was given on the official minutes. But our reporter John Munford in his online story last week detailed what happened:

“A large existing Peachtree City company is gearing up to expand with a number of high-paying jobs, and the city council Thursday approved offering a grant of up to $50,000 in return.

“The company’s name has not been released, but is expected to be made public in the next week or two, according to Brandt Herndon, CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority.

“The city grant will provide a $500 per job credit for each job created which has a base salary of at least $80,000 per year.

“Those jobs should provide a shot in the arm to the city’s higher-end housing market, Herndon noted after the council meeting.

“The resolution adopted unanimously by council also indicates that a physical building expansion of the unnamed company is part of the expansion. Which means the city will be reaping the property tax benefits from the expansion as well.

“Under the resolution passed by council, the grant will be provided after the city’s finance department confirms the terms have been met.

“It was also noted that the company which is expanding is also getting incentives from the Peachtree City Airport Authority,” Munford wrote.

What the story didn’t say but I guess is understood is that the so-called grant money is coming out of the city’s general fund, the one us taxpayers get billed for every year.

So the “grant” is your tax money and my tax money being given by government to a private company to ... what ...? Entice them to do what they intend to do anyway as good business practice to make a profit?

But, one might argue, in these desperate economic times, government partnering with private business to create jobs is not only a good thing, but a vital economic necessity. So what if the city is keeping the name of the company secret? Who does it hurt? Besides, everybody here is acting with good intentions to achieve a good outcome for the community.

Enter the Grinch, who has some counter-arguments about both the secrecy of the local government dispersal of public money and the philosophy driving this seemingly “good intention” by our elected representatives, the keepers of the public purse.

First, what state law authorizes the council to obligate itself to spend public tax money without naming the entity receiving the public money?

Turns out that no state law allows the city to withhold documents about this “Project Z.” In fact, the state Open Records law requires the city to release all such documents related to this “grant.”

The city has said it will release one document that just happens to contain the name of the recipient of this public funding, but it is taking the full statutorily allowed three days before doing so.

By the way, Peachtree City has in the past decade an exemplary record of openness and quick response to open records request. This marks the first time the city has deliberately dragged its feet, to my knowledge.

Only one document is available, I’m told, because the city has in the past few days suffered an email server breakdown and other documents are not currently available. For the conspiracy theorists out there, rest easy. The email breakdown occurred well before my request, so there’s no connection here.

I’m also told that the request for secrecy came from the state and that the city was simply acceding to the state’s request that the company’s name be kept secret.

A county development official assured our reporter that the company’s name will eventually be released ... when the company decides they want it released.

Sorry, that assurance doesn’t cut it. In other words, good intentions must give way to controlling state law.

So, despite the state and the county and the city and — presumably — the private company wanting to keep this secret, I filed an official request to open up the process and let some sunshine in.

I see that as my job — to let the public know in a timely fashion where their tax money is being spent and by whom. I admit to being an openness absolutist when it comes to local government.

My second counter-argument has to do with a kind of insidious and often unstated philosophy that assigns higher and better motives to public officials — to government — than to the voters and taxpayers who pay their salaries and foot the bills for their decisions.

There’s something upside-down about the whole progressive-liberal notion that government is to be accorded more respect and deference than the people who consent to be governed.

In this case, elected officials decided that their bosses did not need to know what company was receiving money that their bosses had coughed up for the operation of city government.

That’s just wrong, from both a moral and political perspective.

At what point did local taxpayers get an opportunity to have a say in this decision? How could taxpayers make an informed decision if pertinent information was being withheld from them?

The state and the county and the city officials decided that their good intentions outweighed both state law and the public’s right to know.

That philosophy is so controlling in our own local City Council that this “Project Z” wasn’t even a regular agenda item on the Sept. 1 published meeting agenda.

Instead, “Project Z” was on what’s called the “consent agenda,” meaning that the item is considered to be so unneedful for public input that it isn’t even accorded its own agenda item number. It was lumped in with various other “housekeeping” items to be voted on as an undiscussed package. The vote Thursday night was unanimous to extend the time period for adding the jobs from 12 months to a new limit of 18 months. No name was announced.

This is what our public officials — some elected and some appointed — think of the voters and the taxpayers.

By such secrecy and with such disdain, the government says to the people, “We know best. And when we want you to know something, we’ll decide when and how to tell you. Until then, sit down and shut up.”

Somebody has to say, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s my money, and I elected you to serve, not to rule.”

And that’s why I filed the Open Records request.

And the big secret: Who is the company requesting this $50,000 grant of our local tax money?

It’s Sany, the largest heavy equipment manufacturer in China, and one of the top 10 heavy equipment manufacturers in the world. Sany employs more than 30,000 employees worldwide. Its new American headquarters is in Peachtree City.

Feel better now?

[Cal Beverly has been the editor and publisher of The Citizen since its first issue in 1993.]

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