Quick Start’s customized job-training program has been called one of Georgia’s key weapons for luring new business into the state. After Kia Motors announced it would build its behemoth new plant southwest of Atlanta, it identified Quick Start as a reason for choosing Georgia over other states.
Today, the Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether many of the program’s records involving the Kia plant are available to the public. The court’s ruling could set a precedent as to whether similar documents kept under the Quick Start program’s control for other economic development projects are subject to the Open Records Act.
The case pits corporate interests who want to keep private any records that may expose their business practices to their competitors against open government advocates who contend the training program should not operate under such a sweeping level of secrecy.
Quick Start, part of the Technical College System of Georgia, provides workforce training free of charge for new companies coming into Georgia or existing companies looking to expand. In 2012 alone, the program trained almost 58,000 workers and assisted more than 2,800 companies with customized training. For the Kia plant, the state built an on-site Quick Start training facility which continues to be used.
The lawsuit was filed by unemployed, union autoworkers who were among 43,000 people who unsuccessfully applied for jobs at the Kia plant in early 2008. They contend Kia created a screening and hiring process that blacklisted union workers when it filled the 1,200 initial jobs needed to start production.
Last week, Kia spokeswoman Corrine Hodges said the company’s hiring process is fair. “All applicants go through a rigorous multi-step hiring process, and there are a number of factors that contribute to each hiring decision,” she said.
On Sept. 21, 2011, the plaintiffs filed a broad Open Records Act request with the Technical College System of Georgia to see what role the state may have played in the Kia plant’s hiring process. A week later, the technical college system responded, but did not produce a single record.
In December 2011, the plaintiffs sued the governor and the technical college system in Fulton County Superior Court seeking access to the records and claiming the documents were not exempted from disclosure.
Just months later, as a rewrite of the state’s open records and meetings law was making its way through the Legislature, a provision was added to keep secret any records that would disclose a potential economic development project until a binding agreement was secured by the state and the new company. Another provision was added to shield records related to a training program, and yet another said this exception could be applied retroactively and used as a basis for withholding documents sought in litigation.
Atlanta lawyer Gerry Weber, who represents the unemployed autoworkers, said the General Assembly enacted the new exceptions and made them retroactive to try and keep his clients from getting the information they were seeking.
“We understand the purpose of the main exemption — you don’t want to let the cat out of the bag and let other states find out who Georgia is negotiating with before a binding agreement is signed,” Weber said. “But once that contract is secured, citizens have a right to know what’s been going on and to make sure taxpayer dollars were spent wisely.”
In a December ruling, Judge Kelly Lee noted the plaintiffs requested the documents long after Kia and the state signed an agreement. She denied a motion by the state and by Kia, which intervened as a party, to dismiss the lawsuit.
Lee found that the Open Records Act established “rights” for Georgia citizens and, if this is the case, the General Assembly cannot abridge those rights through legislation applied retroactively. She rejected arguments by the state and Kia that the law established a mere “privilege” for citizens, which would have allowed the law to be applied retroactively.
The state and Kia appealed Lee’s decision and the state Supreme Court agreed to hear it.
Lee did not address whether the 2012 rewrite of the Open Records Act shields from public view, as the state and Kia contend, any records that relate to job applicants or identify proprietary hiring practices, training, skills or a private entity’s business practices.
But the Supreme Court has told parties on both sides to address this broader question.
In a legal brief, Atlanta lawyer Carl Cannon, who represents Kia, said that for Quick Start to provide its services, it must become involved in the business practices and methods of private companies.
If those were subject to disclosure, it would put Georgia at a competitive disadvantage, he said. “The reason is simple — the offer of Quick Start’s services would not be attractive to private companies who have no desire to have their business practices and methods made available to their competitors through requests under the law.”
But the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in a brief filed in the case, said the new law should not give Quick Start’s training program a permanent and sweeping ability to conceal its records as the state sees fit. Exceptions to the state’s Open Records Act “must be interpreted narrowly to prevent parties from improperly expanding the scope of government records that are kept hidden from Georgia citizens.”