Oct. 26 banquet will celebrate Oliver’s nearly four decades of legislative service and work to protect open government and free speech in Georgia.

Admired for her civility and bipartisanship, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver will receive the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 21st Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award at the 2023 Weltner Banquet, 6:30 p.m., Oct. 26, at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

Oliver, a practicing attorney in Decatur, began her legislative career in Georgia in 1987 and has served in both the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate. Over her decades of public service, she has championed transparency in the Georgia Legislature and supported the mission of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation to keep the halls — and files — of government open to the public. Oliver spoke to the foundation about some of these issues.

How have public attitudes toward government transparency changed over your career?

The public’s attitudes to transparency have changed because of the way technology has changed. And one of the most dramatic changes is the fact that people can watch from their home everything we do in the Legislature. But when you’re watching from home, you have less access to the documents. I feel that difference as a legislator, and that would be even harder for a person at home, because the documents tend to get posted after hearings.

What about how you interact with constituents? Has technology changed that, too?

The communication of folks, constituents and others who are following Georgia politics, their access to me is totally different. And it’s almost 95 percent on social media. For instance, they don’t give me their address when they email me. I’m not always able to know if they are a constituent. And that’s always really important to me. So, my responsiveness and my obligation to people changes when you get auto-directed emails. I got, I think, close to 3,000 messages when I introduced the ban on assault weapons back in 2016. And many were not pleasant, and many of them came from very, very organized efforts to reach you in an unpleasant, threatening way. The ability for the public to have access, the ability for the people to energize around access, I feel is different. That’s a challenge at times, but it also ensures that I no longer hear only from the president of the Rotary Club and the president of the bank.

What is the proper balance between personal privacy and the public’s right to know?

We’re evolving a balance. The power of social media to be mean and attacking and threatening and dangerous, in many cases, has highlighted this issue. When does [public information] serve the public? And when is it a deterrent to public service? How do we ensure good people run for office and show up for juries?

How have attitudes about transparency changed among elected officials?

At a minimum, we have to articulate a willingness to be open to the public. But you know, there are legislative efforts every year to reduce transparency.

What is the state of open government in Georgia right now?

The public is demanding more transparency. We are delivering it slowly and sometimes over a fight. But clearly, the transparency that is available to the public today is dramatically different than when I started my career as a legal services lawyer. I came to the Capitol for the first time when I was in my early 30s. There were secret meetings: Close the door. Don’t come in. And so all of that has dramatically changed. Attempts at secret meetings in the Capitol are far fewer, and far more limited — and the press generally knows.

>>> Purchase tickets now for the upcoming Weltner Banquet, 6:30-9 p.m., Oct. 26, 2023, at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

>>> Learn more about the history of GFAF’s Weltner Award, named in tribute to the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, a protector of open government and the public’s right to know.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Recorder.