A proposed state Senate bill could allow certain business-focused government authorities to hold virtual meetings without the need for emergency declarations.
Senate Bill 26 would give development authorities and community improvement districts (CIDs) the ability to choose to hold virtual meetings. Both types of organizations play important roles in Georgia’s economic development system and include board members appointed by their local governments.
Development authorities, which give tax breaks to corporations and developers, have come under recent scrutiny following multiple scandals and controversial deals. They often act like shadow governments with little oversight. A 2021 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution into the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) prompted legislators to scrutinize their activity during a recent state Senate study committee.
Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, one of the measure’s 11 sponsors, said the change would help these authorities keep a consistent schedule, since their board positions are “held by people who tend to be busy.”
“We learned a lot through the COVID pandemic, and one of the things that we learned is that teleconferencing is an effective means of communication not only for government but for business as well,” he said during a Wednesday meeting by the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism.
The bill received support from the Georgia Economic Developers Association, multiple CID representatives and development authority leaders.
“Senate Bill 26 will allow development authorities to more easily achieve quorums needed to convene and do the work that they were organized to do,” DAFC Chairman Michel “Marty” Turpeau told the AJC in an email. “If approved, we will of course continue to ensure the public has the ability to fully participate and attend.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned whether the bill could limit transparency and prevent development authority members from being confronted by the public. He said the economic deals they strike can seem arcane and are often shrouded in jargon.
“I realize that development authority meetings are not well-attended by the public,” he said. “I’ve attended a few, and it felt like I wasn’t there. There’s a lot of code language and stuff like that.”
Dolezal said virtual meetings, which became common during the COVID-19 pandemic, have mostly improved public participation and access. The Georgia Open Meetings Act only allows for virtual meetings if there’s a federal, state or local emergency ordinance or declaration.
For example, DAFC continues to meet virtually, citing President Joe Biden’s national emergency and public health emergency declarations related to COVID-19. Biden announced this week that he will lift all pandemic-related emergencies May 11.
State law requires virtual meetings to be advertised and structured the same way as in-person meetings. Senate Bill 26 would keep those same requirements for development authorities and CIDs.
“We want to be as transparent as possible,” said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism. “We want to be as open as possible, and we want our meeting to be attainable for everybody that wants to be there and zoom in.”
Herring said he sees the benefits of virtual meetings, but he hopes the bill could be tweaked to force the government bodies that appoint development authority members to advertise the meetings on their websites.
“I hope you all would be open to expanding notice to the broadest public,” Herring told the committee.
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