Court rules for state, Kia in Open Records Act dispute

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of the state and Kia Motors in an Open Records Act dispute involving a job-training program established to lure new business to Georgia.

A Fulton County judge had ruled that an amendment to the Open Records Act had been illegally enacted in the state’s efforts to thwart unemployed auto workers from obtaining information about Quick Start’s customized job-training program. But the state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the amendment is constitutional.

The case pitted corporate interests who want to keep private any records that may expose their business practices to their competitors against open government advocates who contend the training program should not operate under such a sweeping level of secrecy.

Quick Start, part of the Technical College System of Georgia, provides workforce training free of charge for new companies coming into Georgia or existing companies looking to expand.

The lawsuit was filed by unemployed, union autoworkers who were among 43,000 people who unsuccessfully applied for jobs at the Kia plant in early 2008. They contended Kia created a screening and hiring process that blacklisted union workers when it filled the 1,200 initial jobs needed to start production.

On Sept. 21, 2011, the plaintiffs filed a broad Open Records Act request with the Technical College System of Georgia to see what role the state may have played in the Kia plant’s hiring process. A week later, the technical college system responded but did not produce a single record.

In December 2011, the plaintiffs sued the governor and the technical college system in Fulton County Superior Court seeking access to the records and claiming the documents were not exempted from disclosure.

Just months later, as a rewrite of the state’s open records and meetings law was making its way through the Legislature, a provision was added to keep secret any records that would disclose a potential economic development project until a binding agreement was secured by the state and the new company. Another provision was added to shield records related to a training program, and yet another said this exception could be applied retroactively and used as a basis for withholding documents sought in litigation.

Justice Keith Blackwell, writing for the court, said there was “no constitutional impediment to the retroactive modification of the act by subsequent legislation.”

While records relating to job applicants may be exempt from public inspection under the amendment, Blackwell added, “it is not so clear that all records” requested by the workers are exempt. For this reason, the court sent the case back to Superior Court Judge Kelly Lee, instructing her to decide what records may be available.