State Rep. John Carson (R-northeast Cobb) joined state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) in co-sponsoring a bill that would have made a new exemption to the Open Records Act, but that legislation was tabled in committee.
House Bill 796 would have hidden the payroll and personnel records of private contractors being paid to perform services “on a public building project.” Subcontractors would also have been shielded.
Those documents are available to the public now under the state open records law.
Records available to the public include salary information, safety records and disciplinary actions along with other documents used to conduct government business.
Governments seek contractors for a wide range of projects including construction, operation of parks, transportation services and other services.
Opponents argued the bill would have kept the public in the dark about who was doing government work, the training employees had undergone and disciplinary actions employees may have received.
The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association opposed the bill, saying it unnecessarily prevents taxpayers from accessing relevant information about how their tax dollars are spent.
Chris Kelleher, spokesman for the association, said claims made by supporters about the threat of identity theft and disclosure of business practices were irrelevant because of exemptions already included in the open records law.
“This bill would, however, shield relevant and necessary information from our taxpayers and that is simply unacceptable,” Kelleher said.
The bill has been tabled for the remainder of the legislative session and will not move forward.
“Fortunately, (public) access prevailed,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Carson said he supported the bill to protect businesses from “frivolous open records searches.”
He said he has a business contact who was hired to do work on a public construction project and was hit with open records requests from a competitor who wanted to know who his employees were and their wages.
“I was willing to maintain transparency in government but also protect the private records of individuals from ID theft, not to mention allow contractors to maintain their competitive advantage so that they’re not afraid of bidding on government projects,” Carson said.
Though the bill was tabled in committee, Carson said it may be studied again this summer.
Some 911 calls would also be shielded from public
Carson was more successful in co-sponsoring House Bill 449, which would hide 911 telephone calls containing “speech in distress or cries” of a caller who died during the call or the speech or cries of a person who was a minor at the time of the call from being accessed by the public under the Georgia Open Records Act.
The bill provides exemptions only if a representative of the deceased caller’s estate or the minor’s parent or guardian requested a tape and signed an affidavit attesting to their identity. Attorneys involved in a criminal or civil case related to the call could also receive the recording.
Only five lawmakers voted against the bill Tuesday in the Georgia House including Rep. Charles Gregory (R-Kennesaw). It heads to the state Senate next.
Originally the bill was much broader, said Manheimer, and would have exempted not only calls made by someone who died during the call but also recordings including distressed voices.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought the bill in the beginning and in a Feb. 7 letter to Mike Jacobs, of the House Judiciary Committee, Manheimer said she understood the desire to protect family members from hearing their loved one’s voices just before death, but she argued too much room was left to interpretation in determining what would be considered a distressed voice.
That provision of the bill was removed leaving only callers who died and minors exempted.
“Of course, we always oppose closure bills, but this one in its very narrow version is not as troublesome as it initially was,” Manheimer said.
In addition to Carson, Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) also co-sponsored the bill but was absent during the vote and was listed as being excused on the vote roster.
Ehrhart also did not vote on the bill, though he was not excused.