Regina Quick, who represents parts of Clarke and Oconee counties in the Georgia House of Representatives, plans to introduce legislation that would force independent governmental authorities in the state to be more transparent.
Quick refers to these groups as “shadow governments” and said she wants the legislation to specify that these bodies, if they already are spending public money on a website, must post agendas, minutes, contact information for members and core documents on those sites.
Oconee County’s Industrial Development Authority is the most prominent and active of the county’s development authorities, and it does post the minutes of meetings but not the agendas, contact information or core documents on the county’s web site. Neither do Athens-Clarke County's multiple development authorities. Both counties also are members of two joint development authorities with websites that contain almost no information about them.
Quick told a meeting of Oconee County Republicans on Oct. 16 of her plan to have drafted and to introduce in January legislation regarding the operation of development authorities.
She said in a telephone interview that her goal is to have information available to the public about the authorities so citizens don’t have to file open records requests to learn about what the groups are doing.
“Some people cannot even figure out when these groups meet,” she said. “Yet they are discussing very important matters. There needs to be more transparency.”
Quick said she wants her legislation to cover all authorities or entities that deal with economic incentives or tax abatements. Such incentives or abatements affect the tax base in a city or county and the taxes people pay, Quick said. She wants the legislation to force the groups to accept citizen input as well as provide information to the public.
These groups “need to hear” from the citizens, she said.
Quick is a member of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, and she said she knows first-hand of the issues of transparency.
Rick Waller, chair of the Oconee County’s Industrial Development Authority, denied my request at the end of the authority’s meeting on Oct. 13 for a copy of a document he had circulated to that group at that meeting. I had to file an open records request to get that copy. Quick told me when I talked to her on the 19th that she was unaware of the incident, but she said this was the kind of issue her legislation will be designed to address. She said she has had success with the Athens Downtown Development Authority in making information available to the public.
Oconee County’s Industrial Development Authority has played a very prominent role in recent years, purchasing land for the Caterpillar plant, selling land to a biopharmaceutical company at the business park it operates, and conducting a study of zoning in the county. Along with the Athens-Clarke County IDA, it has provided a tax abatement to Caterpillar as part of the incentive package to bring the plant to the area.
The IDA often goes into executive session, as is allowed by law under restricted circumstances. In May, Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood sent that group—and other citizens bodies in the county—a memo stating their obligations to meet the state’s open meetings and open records laws.
In that memorandum Haygood wrote, “I would prefer that legal counsel be present at any executive session due to the potential for making mistakes and the personal liability which might result from such a mistake. Additionally, an improper executive session creates mistrust and cynicism about how our government operates.”
The IDA went into executive session at its meeting on Oct. 13 without Haygood present.
ACC's development authority has been active recently as well, granting property tax abatements for a new Kroger on Highway 29. It also voted down a similar incentives package for a Hyatt Place hotel next-door to the Classic Center after citizens, including Quick, questioned whether the incentives were necessary and objected to giving Hyatt a competitive leg up over existing hotels.
Both counties have been members for many years of what was called the Joint Bioscience Development Authority, focused on development along Highway 316. Historically, it has been relatively inactive. That authority has changed its name to the Innovation Corridor Joint Development Authority to reflect a new, broader emphasis.
Oconee County has only recently joined the Joint Development Authority of Northeast Georgia. According to the group’s website, “Its members participate in regional efforts and partnerships intended to attract new industry and provide increased employment opportunities for its residents."
Becker, a University of Georgia journalism professor, blogs about Oconee County government at flagpole.com and oconeecountyobservations.blogspot.com.