Georgia hearing on open meetings law

GA Attorney General Sam Olens is trying to change Georgia’s open meetings law and there will be a hearing on it next week (30 August 2011).

Walter C. Jones wrote for 5 August 2011, Sunshine law changes to come up in Georgia redistricting session Public records statute is part of redistricting session, says state AG.

Olens unveiled news of the hearing by the House Judiciary Committee while he was participating in a panel discussion hosted by the Atlanta Press Club.

Members of the club offered him suggestions on how to broaden the law to help them get documents from government agencies.

One reporter even suggested extending the open-records requirements to the governor. Current law exempts the governor’s office, but recent occupants have chosen to voluntarily comply in most cases.

Olens said he had to be realistic.

“The problem is I need a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, and I need to get the bill passed,” he said. “Everyone should be subject to the Open Records Act … but you have to make a decision if you want to improve the law or you just want to whine.”

Good point.

AP reported more detail back on 1 March 2011, Georgia may change open meetings law: New attorney general offers many changes, tougher penalties

ATLANTA – Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens on Monday announced a sweeping rewrite of Georgia’s sunshine laws that would sharply increase the fines of meetings and records violations and require advance payment for costly requests.

The changes would require officials who close meetings to keep notes that a judge could review in case of a legal challenge. And the measure would increase the fines for violations of the sunshine laws to $1,000, up from a $100 fine for violations of the Open Records Act and a $500 fine for flouting the Open Meetings Law.

It also includes revisions sure to upset First Amendment advocates. Aside from asking for advance payments on records that cost more than $500 to prepare, it also calls for new exemptions to the open records law. They include documents about security training and any record that would “jeopardize the receipt of federal funds.”

Advance payments are a bad idea, given that agencies can get the payment and then dither forever on delivering the goods. Stiffer fines sound like a good idea, but when has GA ever actually levied the existing fines?

I’d give Olens a B for effort, but a C for content.

Back to the more recent article:

The hearing, scheduled for Aug. 30, will allow members of the Judiciary Committee to hear witnesses for and against Olens’ proposal and to suggest changes. It’s likely that some local officials will object to the higher penalties and stricter provisions about how quickly to produce files for members of the public who request them.

Cynthia Counts, an attorney who specializes in free-speech cases, said public pressure to pass tougher provisions should be strong enough to overcome opposition.

The recent allegations that the Atlanta Public School System altered and destroyed documents or simply refused to turn them over to reporters asking about cheating on standardized tests have demonstrated how far some officials will go to flaunt the current law. There is no more egregious example,” she said. “I urge all of you to contact your legislator.”

Maybe folks around here should contact their state legislators about open records from state prisons and from the sheriff’s office. Maybe even about making county ordinances available to the public, some of the other transparency issues.

I hate to agree with the VDT, but as they said:

“When officials act like they are hiding something, they usually are.”
If the legislature wants to help fix that, let’s take them up on their offer.