Prop. 1 and the Nuances of Privacy

RECEIVED Wed., April 26, 2006

Dear Editor,
    As a privacy advocate, I would like to correct a basic mistake made in the discussion about Prop 1. At the special meeting to redraft council's previous (and illegal) ballot language, city attorneys boldly stated that "corporations have privacy rights" when trying to continue to justify labeling the OGO "privacy invasive" after the judge made clear that all state and federal privacy protection law will still apply. They were referring to the waiver requirements in the OGO to open up tax giveaway discussions.
    The Chronicle repeated this idea in its summary of the amendment at 9) [“An Honest Ballot,” News, April 21]. “9) Any person or company 'seeking to engage' in economic development negotiations with the city must waive all rights to privacy concerning those negotiations.”
    This letter is not the place for a long legal memo on the issue of corporate "personhood," or on the long list of laws guaranteeing your privacy. Suffice to say, corporations aren't people, and any right these legal fictions may have to privacy is far from clear. But I don't have to go into the details of "corporate privacy" to refute the above mistake because the economic development section of the Open Government Amendment isn't about individual privacy but about the information a company should share with the community when it asks for tax breaks – information about the type of business and type of jobs a corporation wants to bring, its history of environmental compliance and good corporate citizenship, its history staying in a jurisdiction after the tax breaks run out, and other items of fundamental interest to the public.
    Companies can now claim confidentiality for virtually anything about their business, including expected traffic impact and the results of environmental studies. The legal secrecy around tax abatement negotiations is used to hide a great deal of important information from the community and can only be overcome by a mandatory waiver. When Proposition 1 passes, companies will still get tax breaks, but they must accept our open process as the starting condition for negotiations.
    The city doesn't need to know – and wouldn't ask for – the formula for Coca-Cola in order to entice a bottler to move to Austin. Companies shouldn't be given money by the city with one hand and allowed to hide information crucial to the community with the other.
Jordan S. Hatcher
Board member
EFF-Austin
   [News Editor Michael King responds: The charter amendment provision to which Jordan Hatcher of EFF-Austin refers is as follows: "The City must require all businesses and individuals seeking to engage in the type of economic development negotiations referenced in Texas Government Code § 552.131 to execute and deliver to the City a waiver of any rights to prevent the public disclosure of all information exchanged with the City. The City is without authority to engage in economic development negotiations with any company that has not first executed a waiver." Accordingly, the Chronicle summary of that provision is correct as it stands.]
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