OPEN GOVERNMENT HEROES: BABS McDONALD and MINDY and DAVID EGAN, Jekyll Island activists: How many visitors does island get?

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Lori Johnston
Published on: 03/16/08

Babs McDonald realizes that open government comes with a price.

Earlier this year, McDonald, who lives in Athens, requested documents from the Jekyll Island Authority concerning sharp declines in the number of people visiting the island.

The information she wanted was not in one file, the authority responded, but she was free to examine all the files she wished—186 boxes containing 1,000 pages each, at a cost of $425. Or she could order copies of everything, which would come to $46,500.

"I could just imagine myself walking into a room with a monitor, i.e. guard, and looking at these boxes. Where would I begin?" said McDonald, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. "As a citizen of the state and as a scientist, I believe they ought to be held accountable for sharing how they arrived at those figures. I can't imagine that the information would be on 180,000 pieces of paper."

Eric Garvey, senior director of marketing and business development for the authority, said the authority's
staff was not able to reasonably fulfill McDonald's request.

She wanted all these archived documents. It was unfortunate that it did seem like a lot of money," he said.
McDonald and others involved in the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, which claims 10,000 members, are concerned about plans for a giant $352 million redevelopment of the island by Linger Longer Communities.

The plan envisions a "town center" built on 63 acres on Jekyll with hotels, condominiums, time shares, a convention center and a retail center. It also calls for park space and an environmental education center.
Opponents say the authority, known as the JIA, has not been forthcoming in responding to requests for information related to the project.

Garvey dismisses those charges.

"Not only does the Jekyll Island Authority take its responsibility to open government seriously with respect to documents, we also answer any correspondence we receive," he wrote in an e-mail to the AJC. "We understand we are a public entity, and if someone requests a document, most often times it is just handed to them. We do get more formal requests from time to time, and those we log and coordinate responses with our representative from the attorney general's office."

David and Mindy Egan are the founders and co-directors of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. Part of the Egans' argument about the Linger Longer redevelopment plan is that the JIA has understated the number of visitors to Jekyll as a way of showing that the island is in need of redevelopment.

David Egan says visitation has not declined by 47 percent between 1996 and 2007, as the JIA reported, but by 15 percent.

In addition, the group is often told that information it wants from the JIA is not available, Egan says, or the information is not provided in a timely fashion.

The activist said he has not received a response to questions submitting in writing earlier this year about the original master plan for a 24-acre development, which now has more than doubled in size. When he asked that question at a board meeting in January, he says he was told to submit the request in writing.

"You get a question that people don't want to answer, and the response is, 'Stick it in writing.' You stick it in writing, and it dies," he said.

Garvey, the JIA's marketing chief, said the authority has "no record of receiving this question in a letter or in e-mail." He added that "we reject the charge that the JIA is not responsive to the public, and we are prepared to demonstrate our responsiveness with copies of our log, copies of correspondence, etc."

The Egans have set up a Web site —- —- and have become lightning rods in the debate over Jekyll's future. They joined forces with McDonald in Athens and also found an ally in Atlantan Dory Ingram, a frequent Jekyll visitor who worries about the barrier island.

"Mindy and David have been completely dedicated to seeing that the visitors to Jekyll Island and the people of Georgia get their say" about development on the island, Ingram said. "This year, we've become a pretty prominent voice. It's obvious that somebody out there is listening and is aware that the people are trying to make their voice heard."

Babs McDonald, meanwhile, believes the Georgia Open Records Act is a vital tool. It was passed "so that government can be accountable, even when it doesn't really want to be accountable," she said.

"I guess I wish that the people of the state would demand, because it is their state park, that the JIA open up its records," McDonald said. "If they can't, I think we ought to say, 'Uh-uh, you can't do this kind of project and not be accountable for the numbers.' "