When Sen. Frank Ginn was running for office last year, his critics often said that if Ginn were elected to the 47th District, his focus would only be to look after the interest of local governments, not average taxpayers.
The basis for that argument was that as county administrator for Franklin County, Ginn was plugged into the local government network and would be a legislative “waterboy” for local government views at the expense of average citizen views.
Those same critics might now be saying “told you so” following a bill Sen. Ginn sponsored last week.
At the behest of the Association County Commissioners Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association, Sen. Ginn was the leading sponsor on SB86, which does away with state requirements that local governments do a comprehensive plan. (See Sen. Ginn’s column about SB86 below.)
That move may be opposed by some community groups that believe governments should do a better job of “planning” for the future. In reality, many of those plans are just wasted efforts that consume a lot of time, but that have little real impact on community development. Sen. Ginn’s bill probably won’t hurt anything, although critics say it will give too much power to developers.
In the larger picture, however, Sen. Ginn’s bill on doing away with comprehensive planning is just the first salvo in a bigger plan by the ACCG and GMA to do away with a lot of state requirements. Some of that may be justified, but some of their proposals are just self-serving.
One of the proposals local governments want to change is to allow governments up to seven days to respond to an open records request. The current law allows up the three days. Local governments say they need more time to respond to some requests.
But there is no reason it should take up to seven days for any local government to respond to an open records request. In unusual situations where the request may require a large number of documents or data retrieval, the current law allows for that. It appears that this change is designed to allow local governments more time to circle the wagons when they know the release of certain documents will show some kind of problem.
Another move the local government groups want is eliminate requirements that they publish certain kinds of financial and public notice data in the newspaper. Governments argue that they should just put that information on their own websites and not have it published to the general public. They say local governments will save money in doing that.
But that’s a spurious argument. Taxpayers don’t go to various government websites each week looking for such data or notices of upcoming meetings. And there isn’t much money involved anyway. Most small towns spend less than $3,000 in state-mandated public newspaper announcements. It would cost much more than that for a city to pay someone to maintain a city-only site with notices, a site that would get little traffic from the public.
Most citizens look to their local media for announcements of this nature. It appears that local governments want to make it more difficult for their citizens to find out what is going on in their city and county governments when the goal should be toward more openness and more transparency, not less. (OK, as a newspaper publisher, I’m biased in this issue; but public notices that aren’t actively disseminated out into the public domain aren’t really public notices. The current system is “active” since it pushes notices to the public via the media, while what ACCG and GMA want are “passive” notices that sit on a computer until they are sought out by a citizen. That’s a big difference as it shifts the burden for disseminating public information away from the government and onto citizens.)
As for Sen. Ginn’s bill, it remains to be seen if it will move forward or if community activist groups will challenge it. It seems that the bill might also be a legislative test balloon to gauge reaction; if the bill moves forward without much flak, look for ACCG and GMA to begin pushing for the removal of other similar mandates in the coming days.
Some of those ideas may be good, but some are bad.
How Sen. Ginn votes on those ideas could very well define him for the coming years and show if he is indeed a “waterboy” for local governments, or if he is also interested in protecting the concerns of average citizens.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of MainStreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Publisher's Blog can be reached here.
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