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Greg Bluestein

With signature, Nathan Deal makes university athletic spending a 90-day state secret

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University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart is greeted by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate. Smart also spoke in the House during his Tuesday visit to the Capitol. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart is greeted by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Georgia’s public college athletic associations now have far more time to respond to open records requests under legislation signed into law Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal despite an uproar from First Amendment advocates.

The legislation, Senate Bill 323, allows the athletic departments at UGA, Georgia Tech and other state colleges to wait 90 days before responding to Open Records Act requests. Athletic associations, like all state agencies, previously had three days to acknowledge the requests.

Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said the governor supported the new rules because “it simply levels the playing field with other states that also have strong athletic programs like Georgia.”

Lawmakers approved the measure after a visit by new Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who said he was asked about it during his March sojourn to the statehouse. It soon was tacked on to an unrelated measure and was swiftly passed after midnight on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

Public records advocates encouraged Deal to veto the measure. Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation called it an “affront” to Georgia’s public records laws. And David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who is an expert on Freedom of Information laws, said his “jaw dropped to the floor” when he saw the language.

There was little doubt that Deal would sign it, though. The exemption was added to a separate measure sought by the governor that would allow state agencies to reject records requests involving ongoing economic development projects until the deal is made public.

The legislation, which received the overwhelming support of lawmakers from both parties, exempts salary information for coaches and executives from the 90-day rule. But it would delay the release of a range of other potentially newsworthy details, including capital projects such as new facilities and recruiting spending.

In a survey of other states in the Southeastern Conference, our AJC colleague Seth Emerson found that most were required to respond to records requests within three to 10 days. South Carolina gives officials 15 days to respond, while Mississippi requires seven days to acknowledge a request and 14 to fulfill it. Both Alabama and Florida require a more open-ended “reasonable” timeframe for a response.

The University of Georgia’s athletic establishment has left little doubt that they welcomed the law. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity previously said the legislation “helps us tremendously,” while maintaining the school had nothing to do with proposing it. He told the AJC that the university has received roughly 100 records requests in the first three months of the year, which he said is “taxing to a lot of people.”

“They’re very lengthy and it takes a lot of time just to estimate the time and effort it takes for those people who are doing their regular job, not necessarily to stop everything to provide this information,” McGarity told Emerson. “And some of that stuff has to be done after hours. Because it’s not like we have staff that are sitting idly by just to deal with this.”

Open records advocates say the changes are unprecedented, and warn that other state agencies could soon push for the same delay that athletics programs won. Manheimer said that the law is so broadly written that it shields contract terms, complaint letters from the NCAA, spending projects and more from the public eye.

“No other public agency in Georgia is given 90 days to conduct its business in secret,” she said.