Charges filed in Atlanta transparency case demonstrate perils of violating Georgia’s Open Records Act

‘These are the people’s records, and the public deserves access to them,’ says Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths.

For the first time ever, an alleged violation of Georgia’s Open Records Act has led to criminal charges. On Feb. 11, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced plans to prosecute Jenna Garland, who served as press secretary under former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Garland is accused of intentionally delaying the release of public records that contained information potentially damaging to city officials. The alleged actions were documented in text messages in which Garland directed a subordinate to “be as unhelpful as possible,” “drag this out” and “provide the information in the most confusing format available” in response to records requests from WSB-TV.

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

“In part, this prosecution was made inevitable by the clear documentation of the obstruction,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “Many other cases where officials are slow to respond, impose outrageous fees or claim spurious exemptions are harder to take on. The attorney general’s office also regularly weighs in on the side of open government to discourage these less obvious tactics.

“The decision to prosecute in the City of Atlanta case sends a clear message that public officials in Georgia violate the open records laws at their peril. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation commend Attorney General Carr for taking such a strong stand for open government. These are the people’s records, and the public deserves access to them — even if those records are embarrassing to public officials,” Griffiths said.

Current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council in September passed a sweeping ordinance that institutes a transparency officer, open government training for all city officials, a website to track open records compliance and penalties for city officials who don’t comply. Griffiths said if Atlanta lives up to these promises to increase transparency, the city could become a national model for openness.

Griffiths also pointed out that while bad actors grab the headlines, most state and local government officials in Georgia respect and comply with the Open Records Act. “As we have seen from the training sessions that the foundation puts on, many public officials and records custodians are anxious to learn the details of the law so they can do the right thing.”

Watch Griffiths’ March 8, 2018, interview with WSB-TV in which he called for the attorney general to investigate the City of Atlanta’s potential Open Records Act violations.

 

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