HB 397 sunshine bill is now law: open government forecast partly cloudy

It’s a cloudy sunrise for open government in Georgia with HB 387 now law. Will anyone enforce it? Will local governments comply? Will the legislature extend this law into a sunshiny day in Georgia?

Aaron Gould Sheinin and Bill Rankin wrote for the AJC yesterday, Governor signs Open Records rewrite into law,

House Bill 397, which took effect upon Deal’s signature, is the first major rewrite of Georgia’s sunshine laws in more than a decade. New provisions in the open records and meetings laws increase fines for offenders. The maximum penalty of $500 is now $1,000, and offenders who commit repeat violations within a year face fines of up to $2,500.

Previously, the sunshine laws allowed only criminal complaints to be filed against suspected violators, meaning a prosecutor would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The rewrite now allows the filing of civil complaints, which have a lower burden of proof.

That could be interesting if anyone actually files a complaint.

The rewrite also would provide new exemptions for some gatherings of governing bodies, such as allowing a quorum of members to attend the same civic function, receive training or visit government agencies — provided no official business is discussed or transpires.

So the various elected boards meeting together at the end of last month was probably OK, since they weren’t making decisions, merely educating each other. But the Lowndes County Commission repeatedly hiding from the public while discussing solid waste disposal, among other issues, does not seem to fit that exception.

It also reduces the cost of most documents disclosed under the Open Records Act from 25 cents to 10 cents per page.

That means the price of the Industrial Authority’s old minutes just went down, presumably from $125.09 to $50.04. Of course, it’s been yet another year since Allan Ricketts supplied Bobbi Anne Hancock with a “notification that cost incurred” would be $125.09 for 2006 to 2011. So presumably add another $10 or so.

In another ten days it will be a year since VLCIA Chairman Roy Copeland told me he was in favor of putting the minutes online. In another couple of months he won’t even be on the VLCIA board anymore. Still VLCIA has no minutes online.

The new law adds an economic development exception:

Under the new law, state incentives being offered to projects that cost more than $25 million or hire more than 50 employees will remain secret until a company commits to the development or abandons negotiations. When a company commits to a project, the Georgia Department of Economic Development will now publish the incentives on its website. If the project is abandoned, the incentive package can be obtained under the Open Records Act, upon request.

That exception doesn’t seem to have much to do with most of what VLCIA discusses, so it doesn’t give them any new excuses not to post minutes.

HB 397 is a good start; a cloudy sunrise. More can be done. How about requiring any tax-funded or publicly-appointed agency to post agendas and minutes on its website, and to have a website for that purpose? How about require including relevant items from board packets with the agendas? If both school boards can do it, the Industrial Authority and all the other local appointed and elected boards can do it.

The legislature could turn this cloudy sunrise into a sunny day for Georgia.