ATLANTA – The Georgia First Amendment Foundation gave the 2015 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens at a dinner September 17 to honor his commitment to improving open government laws in Georgia.
The dinner was held in the Silverbell Pavilion at the Emory Conference Center.
The foundation also honored citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale, who was represented by the attorney general in a lawsuit filed on her behalf over open meeting violations in Cumming, Ga. GFAF President Shawn McInstosh presented Ms. Tisdale the foundation’s 2015 Open Government Hero award for her tenacious commitment to transparency in local government.
Olens has acted in the best traditions of former Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner in pursuing changes to Georgia’s Open Records and Meetings Acts designed to enhance the ability of Georgia citizens to access public records and public government gatherings. Among other enhancements, the changes strengthened enforcement provisions of the acts. And since the law was updated, Olens has used those provisions to successfully sue violators.
Of particular note, on August 21, 2014, Judge Robert Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Olens in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the City of Cumming and Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Judge Adamson ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties, the highest amount possible under the law, as well as attorney’s fees.
“Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly,” Olens said. “The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”
The case began with a Cumming City Council meeting on April 17, 2012. Mayor Gravitt demanded that citizen Nydia Tisdale cease filming the meeting and subsequently ordered her to leave the meeting. Ms. Tisdale returned to the meeting with another hand held camera and was again told to stop recording the meeting. Georgia’s Open Meetings Act expressly provides that visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.
In addition to the state action brought by Olens, Tisdale also brought suit in federal court. The local government defendants settled that case for $200,000 and written assurances that city policies would allow public filming of all future meetings.
A video about Olens was introduced by Presiding Justice Harris Hines of the Georgia Supreme Court.
The Weltner Award: In the spirit of Charles L. Weltner, The Weltner Freedom of Information Banquet, which occurs each year, honors a person or group who worked to significantly improve freedom of information in Georgia. It is named for the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who championed transparency and ethics in state government. If you have someone you would like to nominate for the Weltner Award, write or send your e-mail to:
|Ga. First Amendment Foundation150 East Ponce de Leon Ave.
Decatur, GA 30030
Justice Weltner’s majority opinion for the Supreme Court of Georgia in Davis et al v. City of Macon, 262 Ga. 407 (7/16/92).
“This is the last appeal in which I will participate as a member of the Supreme Court of Georgia… Over the past decade, as I see it, our court has breathed life into some old words that have lain dormant within our constitution for most of their century-old existence. The words are: ‘Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.’ (Constitution of Georgia of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. I.) We have established that this is no empty phrase, but an obligation that is enforceable in a court of law. Public men and women, above all others, must be of good faith. Neither facile excuse nor clever dissimulation can serve in the stead of duty — faithfully performed. Because public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open.”
WELTNER AWARD PREVIOUS WINNERS
- 2014 Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission
- 2013 Carol Hunstein, Chief Justice, Georgia Supreme Court
- 2012 John Lewis, Representative, United States Congress
- 2011 Vernon Keenan, Director Georgia Bureau of Investigation
- 2010 Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- 2009 Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice, Georgia Supreme Court
- 2008 Michael Bowers, former Attorney General of Georgia and Jim Houston, retired from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
- 2007 Marvin H. Shoob, Judge, United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
- 2006 Johnny Isakson, Senator, United States Congress
- 2005 Norman Fletcher, former Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Georgia
- 2004 Roy Barnes, former Governor of Georgia
- 2003 Thurbert Baker, former Attorney General of Georgia
- 2002 Eason Jordan, former CNN Chief news executive and president of newsgathering