ATLANTA (AP) -- Documents having to do with a state agency's involvement in recruiting and hiring workers for a private company should be available to the public, a lawyer for four unsuccessful applicants for jobs at a Georgia auto plant argued Monday.
Gerry Weber made the argument before the Supreme Court of Georgia. The state and Kia Motors Manufacturing are appealing a lower court's ruling that applying a specific exemption to deny access to the documents violates prohibitions against retroactive laws and the right of access to courts.
A 2006 agreement between the state of Georgia and Kia Motors Manufacturing to build a $1.2 billion auto plant in West Point included a provision that the state build a training facility next to the site to train new employees. The training facility was part of the state Department of Economic Development's Quick Start program, which is meant to provide a trained workforce as an economic development incentive.
Weber represents four people who were among about 43,000 who applied for the initial jobs at the plant. The four — three of whom had worked at a Ford Motor Company plant in Hapeville before it closed in 2006 — say they were discriminated against because they had been members of the United Auto Workers labor union.
They filed a request under Georgia's Open Records Act request with Quick Start in September 2011. They sought documents related to the recruitment, application and hiring process at the plant, saying they wanted to determine "what role, if any, the State played in Kia's exclusion of former Ford employees from its hourly workforce."
They received a response a week later saying "the documents described are either not in the possession of Georgia Quick Start or constitute proprietary information and/or trade secrets and therefore are not subject to disclosure under the Georgia Open Records Act."
The four job applicants sued the governor and the technical college system in December 2011, challenging the classification of the documents as "trade secrets."
Several months after the lawsuit was filed, the state Legislature undertook a sweeping overhaul of the Open Records Act. It included an exemption for records that would disclose a potential economic development project until a binding agreement has been reached. It also exempts records related to a training program. And it made that exemption retroactive and said it could be used to withhold documents sought by a lawsuit.
Weber argues the Legislature adopted the exemptions and made them retroactive specifically to remove the cause of action for his clients' lawsuit and keep them from getting the documents they had requested.
Much of the argument before the Supreme Court Monday centered on the grammatical interpretation of the exemption's provisions, with lawyers on both sides discussing the placement of commas in the statute.
Arguments also focused on whether the unsuccessful job applicants have a right to public records or, as the state and Kia argue, access to open records is a privilege. The lower court judge found that the law establishes rights to the information, meaning the Legislature couldn't adjust those rights through retroactive legislation.