Teaching the public’s right to know

Richard T. Griffiths

Barely a week goes by that you don’t hear about a public agency or official in Georgia falling short of the transparency required by the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Some have almost certainly been intentional violations in which public officials were caught red-handed, deliberately thwarting the public’s right to know.  But many violations are unintended, the result of well-meaning public officials simply not understanding what is required of them.

Hunger for understanding the Sunshine Laws was on display in October in Alpharetta when more than 40 public officials from as far as Gainesville – many records custodians – attended another Georgia First Amendment Foundation training session explaining the requirements and intricacies of Georgia’s open government laws.  The officials showed they were enthusiastic about the benefits of open government and anxious to do the right thing.

The same day as that Alpharetta training event, supporters of the foundation were gathering in Atlanta for our annual fundraiser, the Weltner Award Banquet, where we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his extraordinary career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent.

But it was also the fundraising component of the evening that was extraordinary.  Donors pledged to write checks for more than $136,000 for the foundation’s work, donations that will allow us to shift our training programs into overdrive.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley and WSB News Director Misti Turnbull announce $80,000 donation at the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.

During the banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News announced an $80,000 donation that the foundation will use to provide open government training across Georgia. The news organizations, both part of the Cox Media Group, in April filed a complaint with the Georgia attorney general alleging the City of Atlanta maintained “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed.

The AJC and WSB settled with the city in early October. Under the terms, the City Council and new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms agreed to take substantial steps to increase transparency and also to pay the news organizations $80,000 as partial reimbursement of legal fees. That money will now be used by the foundation to provide transparency training for public officials, members of the public and journalists statewide.

We offer training like the session we delivered in Alpharetta to citizens, public servants and journalists all over the state, including the City of Atlanta.

We were also delighted to announce during our banquet that the Georgia First Amendment Foundation received funding to republish significantly updated versions of our guidebooks that detail the public’s right to access its government under state law. The Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management, will provide $10,000 to update the books. The Georgia Press Association is contributing $1,000 toward the effort.

The guidebooks are key tools of the foundation’s open government work in Georgia. They include the Red Book, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, and the Blue Book, a Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia. We last updated those books in 2014 and we’ve used them extensively in our training of public officials. The new funds also will help us create a new Yellow Book, A Guide to Open Records and Courts in Georgia, detailing transparency requirements in the workings of the state’s legal system.

Our next major event is our Legislative Breakfast near the start of the General Assembly session, and we are in the process of scheduling training events throughout 2019 for the public and government officials.  If you would like to schedule training on open government in your area, send us an email and we’ll figure out how to work you into the schedule.  Keep up with our news on gfaf.org and via our e-newsletters.

As Judge Jim Bodiford reminded us at the Weltner Banquet, quoting Georgia’s constitution: “’Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.’ That’s something that we could probably read and review every day.”

Wise words from Jim Bodiford.

We hope you will engage with the foundation as we take on this important educational work.

Wishing you the best for the holiday season,

Richard T. Griffiths

President, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

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