The oath "first, do no harm" applies to doctors. And it should also apply to public officials.
Unfortunately, harm is a main ingredient of a piece of legislation riding greased skids through the Georgia General Assembly.
House Bill 218 sounds simple enough. All it would do, its supporters say, is "level the playing field" between Georgia and surrounding states in attracting economic development. The bill would do so by limiting public access to the details of deals government entities put together to lure new industry.
Members of the public aren't fighting for such access because they don't understand that it is their rights that are being threatened. Meanwhile, backers of the bill disingenously paint its opponents as "the media," as if newspapers and TV stations are just another interest group.
Journalists don't seek information about these sorts of deals just to try to derail them. After all, the people who own and work for newspapers live in their communities, too, and understand -- perhaps better than the general public -- that economic development is vitally important.
Further, access public information isn't just for newspapers. The right belongs to every citizen. The difference is that citizens rarely exercise, or even know about, their rights to public information; most choose to rely on an impartial press to do it for them.
So when the media warns that politicians are trying to find a new way to operate in secret, we aren't saying it for our own good -- we're shouting it for everyone.
HB 218 would do far more than make the media's job more difficult; it would make the public less secure in their own communities. This bill would do so by allowing development interests to forge secret deals to lure companies, presenting the near-finished product to the public far too late for any meaningful objections.
Already, the unsuspecting public is often blind-sided by simple zoning deals; how much worse would it be to not only find out the land next door to your home had been sold and was being rezoned for, say, a tire-shredding plant, but that county officials had secretly spent your money to lure the property's new owner to your neighborhood?
"The premise of HB 218 is that people can't be trusted to make responsible decisions about what comes into their communities, and so secrecy is essential until their objections no longer matter," says Jim Wooten, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jim Espy, executive editor of The Daily Citizen in Dalton, Ga., is blunt: "House Bill 218 is bad legislation. It reeks of arrogance, insider politics and deceptiveness. The potential for abuse, cronyism and corruption is enormous."
Like his fellow members of Columbia County's legislative delegation, freshman state Sen. Jim Whitehead supports the bill, buying into the "level playing field" argument. "I think it's a good bill," says Whitehead, noting its support from governments and government-interest agencies across Georgia. Sadly, even Columbia County's own Development Authority needlessly voted Tuesday to endorse the bill, thumbing its noses at local citizens.
Espy shreds the support of such government-focused interests, pointing out that increased government secrecy isn't a "field" Georgia needs to play on. "House Bill 218 is about concentrating enormous power in the hands of the already powerful, the wealthy and the politically connected," Espy writes. "Those insiders believe average Georgians are too moronic to understand and participate in the heady realm of 'economic development.'"
Lubricated with big money and the fledgling Republican majority's troubling trend toward secrecy and power, HB 218 is headed for likely passage. Citizens rarely exercise their right to see how the government uses their money, but the media can't fight the battle for access without the public's help. It is in the public's interest -- not just the media's -- that they do so.
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