Sunshine still disinfects

A smattering of bills now before the Georgia General Assembly, if passed into law as now written, would cast a heavy, dark cloak over government processes that, with rare exception, should be open to public examination.

Such a drawing of blinds around the people’s business should not occur this year – or ever. It’s now up to right-thinking Georgians to keep that from happening. Citizens who value freedom and intuitively recognize the unacceptable downside of government routinely conducting too much business outside of public scrutiny should make their voices heard — before inappropriate measures move any closer to fruition.

Americans are taught – or should be – to appreciate the concept of transparent governance. This is not a dreamy-eyed ideal. It is, and should remain, a primary pillar of our free society.

It’s not an easy principle to achieve. Safeguarding competing interests is tough work. As in finding an appropriate, workable equilibrium between, say, an individual’s right of privacy and the broader mandate for an open government. The push-pull between these never ends, given incessant evolution in both society and technology.

Yet the public’s interest in being able to observe its government at work and assess its performance cannot be sold short. It is too important a factor in the equation we call freedom.

How is a portion of all that at real risk now in Georgia? For starters, several bills contain similar language addressing “when public disclosure is not required.” That’s too often a bad place to start from when crafting legislative intent.

Take House Bill 845: As written, it would have unduly limited public release of booking photographs of criminal suspects. Thankfully, its language was softened in committee. Under an earlier interpretation, the bill could have prevented release of so-called “mug shots” until the person has been convicted – which often occurs long after arrest.

That result, while intended to safeguard the privacy of those who are, yes, innocent until proven guilty, would have led to too much of the criminal justice process occurring outside public scrutiny. We’ll admit our industry’s interest here as journalists, researchers and ordinary citizens alike need unfettered access to basic information, including photos of those arrested and charged with crimes. That’s long been the practice of our free society and serves its needs well on the whole. Denying such access to records would come too close to practices of police states for Georgians to accept, in our view.

A later version of the bill more appropriately brings its force against only those entities that charge money for removing mug shots from public view.

Another measure, House Bill 828, would unacceptably limit news media access to auto accident reports. It grants media access only to information more than 60 days old. That time gap amounts to a black hole which should be unthinkable in a free society. The public deserves information as soon as practicable, not after two months’ time. Georgia should find a better way to achieve the intended goal of thwarting pesky people from soliciting business from car accident victims.

Individual rights are one matter. Other bills are quite troubling because of their unacceptably broad purview and intent.

House Bill 935 would exempt the affairs of public retirement systems from disclosure. Perhaps as a consolation prize, the bill would reduce from three years to two the requirement for actuarial investigation of said pension systems. The net effect would pretty much grant full police powers to foxes when it comes to guarding henhouses. That would be a bad thing, in our view.

Given human nature and the large volume of dollars handled by public pension systems, the potential for mischief to remain undiscovered is far too great for this measure to be given further serious consideration. It deserves to go nowhere fast.

To that point, it is a credit to the state House that a similar bill, HB 796, seems to have been sidetracked for this year. It should not rise again. It would “exempt from public inspection” payroll and personnel records of private contractors performing work on public property.

You read that correctly. The bill would remove from public scrutiny the processes by which untold billions of dollars of taxpayer money are routinely spent. That’s an outrageous prospect, especially in a time when the phrase “public-private partnership” seems among the most often voiced by bureaucrats and elected officials.

To their credit, some lawmakers apparently recognized the ludicrous nature of this bill. It, and the concept it represents, should remain buried for all time.

Taken in sum, the “public disclosure” bills before the legislature give powerful testimony to the time-honored saying that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Government transparency makes that possible. Citizens should demand it, and the General Assembly should do nothing to unduly restrict it.

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