(Atlanta) – In a ruling released today, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s determination that the records related to Atlanta’s bids for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the 2009 Super Bowl are public records and must be made available for public inspection. Attorney General Baker praised the Court’s ruling, stating that, “today’s ruling affirms the basic right that taxpayers have a right to know what their elected representatives are doing and how their tax dollars are being spent.”
This dispute arose when media outlets requested documents related to the bid packages put together jointly by officials for the State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta as well as officials from Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, but Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, who maintained the documents related to the bids, refused to release the records. Not only were public monies spent in preparing the bid documents (in the case of the NASCAR Hall of Fame bid, public monies accounted for at least 60% of the $500,000.00 spent on preparing the bid), but significant staff resources from the State and the City were utilized in preparing the bids. The NASCAR bid called ultimately for over $100 million in public resource commitments through a combination of $25 million in direct appropriations from the State, $15 million in direct appropriations from the City, and $62 million in government backed bonds. The Super Bowl bid called for millions of dollars in free use of public facilities and providing of other in-kind services.
When informed that Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber had failed to release these records in response to an Open Records request, Attorney General Baker demanded that these entities release the records. When they refused, Attorney General Baker sued these entities in Fulton County Superior Court to force the release of these public records. At the trial in Fulton County, evidence revealed that government officials were provided bid documents during meetings leading up to the formal submission of bids. While these documents would clearly have been subject to Open Records if they had remained in the hands of these government officials, the documents were returned at the end of each meeting to Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber in an attempt to circumvent the Open Records Act.
After the Fulton County Superior Court found against Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber and ordered the records to be turned over to the public, those entities appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals made short work of the arguments raised on appeal, ruling that the substantial public involvement in terms of monetary pledges and staff resources mandated the bid records be open to the public. In addition, the Court singled out the scheme to take back the documents at the end of each meeting for particularly harsh criticism, ruling that the Open Records Act “clearly does not condone evasive efforts such as those practiced here.”
Baker singled out the underlying justification for the state’s sunshine laws, elaborating that “Documents related to committing public taxpayers’ money and other resources to public or joint public-private ventures must be open to inspection. Transparency in government is the best way to foster public trust in government. By allowing the public to see the details of major projects that the government is undertaking, government can enlist active and vibrant public support for projects that would benefit the state.”
In responding to criticism from Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber that disclosure of these type of bid records would hamper future efforts in Georgia to compete for these types of events and projects, Baker was quick to point out that Charlotte, which ultimately won the NASCAR Hall of Fame bid, had disclosed virtually all of the documents related to its bid months before it was awarded the Hall of Fame. Baker continued by recalling that records related to the bid for and staging of the 1996 Olympic Games were subject to public disclosure, a fact that did not impact Atlanta’s winning bid.