ATLANTA (AP) — Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:


March 12

The Augusta Chronicle on a college baseball team's bus catching fire in Georgia:

We never grow tired of seeing folks pull together to help neighbors in a tough spot.

In this case it was a hot spot. The University of South Carolina Aiken baseball team was riding home from Dahlonega on Sunday, after its series with the University of North Georgia, when the team's charter bus caught fire in Greene County.

All 38 passengers got out of the bus in time and weren't hurt. Everyone got home safely. But some of the team's equipment (and) a lot of players' personal items went up in smoke - including the uniforms that players wore that day, catcher's gear and about a dozen or so baseball gloves.

Apparently unfazed, the team held a light practice Monday, and the Pacers' Wednesday night game vs. Erskine College is going forward as planned. Meanwhile, offers of assistance have been pouring in from all over.

"What's so amazing is how many people around the country are offering to help us. I've had calls from all over the country today, and emails and text messages," USC Aiken baseball coach Kenny Thomas said Monday. "The community's been unbelievably supportive trying to help us."

Closer to home, a portion of the ticket sales from USC Aiken's game March 28 against Augusta University will be set aside to help the Pacers recover. We encourage you to go to the game at SRP Park in North Augusta — you'll see impressive baseball and you'll be giving to a worthy cause.

An inevitable GoFundMe page sprung up online, but it's not affiliated with the school. A safer bet, if you want to donate to the team, would be to call the university at (803) 641-3518.

Coach Thomas said he hadn't seen anything like that fire in at least 32 years of riding buses.

Why do buses burst into flame? Take your pick - mechanical failures, loose wires, parts that wear out, leaky fluids and exploding tires are just a few reasons.

We wrote in this space just the other day about Richmond County school bus drivers' complaints concerning on-the-job safety — including incidents when two school buses caught fire in less than a week last October.

Of course those buses are different — yellow school buses, as opposed to motor coaches with comfier seats and DVD players — but the safety concerns certainly are the same.

That means the solutions are pretty much the same, too. For now, diligent troubleshooting and other preventive measures certainly are the best methods to reduce the chances of a bus fire breaking out.

But the age of a bus fleet is another factor that's not always so easily fixable. Just like most of us can't buy ourselves new cars whenever we want, governments and businesses that oversee bus fleets can't always swap out old buses when desired, or even needed. So, old buses are pressed into service for longer periods, which increases chances for accidents.

Incidents such as the Pacers' bus fire present clear opportunities for motor coach and bus rental companies and local-government transportation directors, to take closer and more frequent looks at bus safety.

Accidents happen. But safety is up to us.



March 10

The Savannah Morning News on expanding the Savannah Convention Center:

Local community leaders made a "big ask" with their bold $234 million request to the state for a Savannah Convention Center expansion.

The state seems poised to say yes — provided Savannah officials acquiesce to a "big ask" from the governor's office: Shared control.

The Georgia House of Representative passed a resolution Thursday that would dissolve the existing Georgia International and Maritime Trade Center Authority and create a new one called the Savannah-Georgia Convention Center Authority. The maneuver is about much more than a name change, however, as the bill also alters the board's governance, specifically who appoints the members.

Currently, all 12 board members are appointed locally, either by members of the Savannah-area lawmakers at the Georgia Capitol or Chatham County and City of Savannah elected officials. Under the new arrangement, the Savannah-Georgia Convention Center Authority board would consist of 11 members, with the governor appointing six and local state lawmakers three. The other two seats are reserved for the leaders of the Savannah Economic Development Authority and Visit Savannah as ex-officio board members with full voting privileges.

The Chatham County Commission and Savannah City Council would lose their appointments to the authority board

The message is clear: If Savannah wants the state to foot the bill for a convention center expansion, the price is a controlling interest in facility decision making.

Power play

It would be easy for Savannah officials to take umbrage with the plot twist in this saga.

Savannah and Chatham County have invested $155 million in the convention center since 1993. We built the facility, nurtured it and made it a draw for visitors and all their dollars — 4 percent of which goes directly back to the state in taxes, translating to tens of millions of dollars. The indirect economic impact on the state treasury is significant as well.

So why mess with success?

Because the state's interest in the Savannah Convention Center will greatly increase with such a large investment.

Gov. Kemp is just two months into his tenure and is exerting his influence in various ways across the state — not unusual for a new leader. Board appointments would give the governor a say in how the authority and facility are managed. The current convention center board includes members who have been in their posts since inception, including longtime chairman Mark V. Smith. Many were involved in lobbying Kemp — first as a candidate, then as governor-elect and finally as governor — on the expansion.

Additionally, the board hires and fires the facility manager and by extension the operations staff.

Regardless of the motives, Kemp and state officials are making a move on the current authority and the Savannah Convention Center in order to pave the way for the state's investment. To fight this effort now would all but guarantee the end of state support.

Deal worth taking

The resolution currently sits with the State Senate.

Our two senators, Ben Watson and Lester Jackson, have hinted at tweaking the legislation's language but are inclined to support the measure and push for passage.

From there, only Gov. Kemp could stop it. And he won't, so long as the Senate's alterations don't go too far.

Those who oppose the quasi-takeover have only one viable alternative to achieving the expansion — financing it locally. Just as city and county taxpayers dedicated significant dollars to establish the convention center, they could do so again. A penny sales tax vote is scheduled for November, and the project list has yet to be finalized.

This editorial board discourages this tactic. We recommend local officials work with Sens. Jackson and Watson and Kemp's team to find an acceptable solution on governance. That could be as simple as increasing the size of the board to allow our local state legislators, the Chatham County Commission or the Savannah City Council to appoint members.

Expanding the Savannah Convention Center is an economic development priority. Make it happen.



March 10

The Times of Gainesville on the public's access to public records:

Government entities distribute information in a variety of ways in today's media landscape.

They still send traditional press releases to media outlets like The Times. They also post on social media, do podcasts and provide videos of public meetings.

During "Sunshine Week," when newspapers across the country celebrate the laws that provide some transparency in government, we'd like to applaud our local governments for their efforts to inform the public.

One of those laws requires governments to publicize when officials are gathering to meet — and unless they're discussing real estate acquisition, personnel or litigation, the meetings are open to the public.

Hall County and Gainesville governments have increased access to those meetings by providing video recordings of them on social media and their websites. Though the public access channel TV18 closed at the end of 2018, online videos arguably provide easier access to those interested in following an issue. Online videos are continuously available rather than aired at specific times.

Several local government entities have considered using technology such as Facebook Live to stream meetings as they are happening. Hall County Schools has even tried it a few times, though it noted that interest from the public was low.

Despite low interest, we'd like to see local governments pursue this option. It requires a cellphone, a charging cord, access to WiFi and a tripod. Quality, as noted by Hall school officials, can be questionable, and additional equipment may improve the sound and visuals. But in an age where anyone can whip out a cellphone and hit record, it makes sense to take this step. It's a low investment to dramatically increase the public's access to the information in a transparent way.

Facebook is not the solution to problems of open governments, though.

Follow a Facebook page like that of the Georgia Department of Transportation's Northeast District and you'll learn about upcoming open house meetings, planned lane closures and newly opened bridges.

That's all useful information. What you won't learn about is the failed strength tests of the new Exit 14 bridge across Interstate 985.

Last week, The Times published an article about the failed tests and another on the materials that were to blame.

This story developed from a tip made to The Times and a request for information from the DOT. When information was not readily available, The Times filed an open records request with the DOT.

Open records requests are made frequently by newspapers to obtain information that governments do not always provide otherwise. The laws allow average residents and the media to access public information that might otherwise not be made available.

In the case of the Exit 14 bridge, The Times is paying $187.91 to receive 820 pages related to the new interchange. Look for another story this week once those documents have been received.

The public deserves to know when a bridge funded by taxpayer dollars has failed tests.

Open records laws ensure they have access to the information.

In another recent open records request made by The Times, the newspaper learned the details of Gainesville officials' decision to spend $10 million in public funds for land at the midtown end of the pedestrian bridge over Jesse Jewell Parkway.

In both of these as well as other cases, once the records have been requested, local government officials take the time to speak with reporters, adding context to the documents. It's usually helpful background to explain what the documents show. But words from government officialdom are no substitute for the actual documents, which are proof of what those government employees are actually up to and motivation for the governments to address issues they might prefer to sweep under the rug.

Those stories are but two examples of the many occasions The Times has used existing state and federal laws to obtain information on behalf of the general public. It's part of what we do.

The various laws dealing with making public records available and holding open government meetings are collectively called "sunshine laws," as in allowing the sun to shine into government operations for all to see what is done.

Georgia's version of Sunshine Laws are much stronger than they were a couple of decades ago, but still not as strong as they could be. At that, they are better than what is found in many other states.

The annual Sunshine Week recognition is meant to be a reminder of how important those laws are, and of the need to be vigilant in making sure attempts to weaken them are not successful.

And while the news media is behind the Sunshine Week recognition, it is important to realize that these laws are not written for the benefit of the media. They are a guarantee that the general public has access to government information, not just the journalists who often work on the public's behalf.

Laws mandating that government records cannot be maintained in secret, government meetings cannot be held in private, and government actions cannot be taken without public knowledge, serve us all well. We would be remiss in not acknowledging the importance of those laws to the functions of our society, while in doing so perhaps subtly reminding all those in government service of their existence and intent.


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