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

New City of Atlanta open records approach a ray of sunshine

By Jim Zachary

The city of Atlanta has passed sweeping open government legislation that should be a model across Georgia.

Let’s be clear.

Atlanta did not have a great track record when it comes to open government under its previous administration.

The ordinance passed Monday seems to be a good faith effort to right the ship by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the current administration.

Essentially, the city will now have an open government ombudsman, a transparency officer, tasked with policing open records compliance.

All city employees who handle public documents will be required to complete open records training.

And a new website will give the public a way to track open records requests in real time.

Along with Mayor Bottoms, give credit to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV for fighting the good fight, holding Atlanta officials accountable, exposing corruption in city government and negotiating with city leaders for these sweeping changes.

Their reporting led to a criminal investigation of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration around the stalling of records requests and even the falsification of public documents.

The media has an important role to play in holding local government accountable.

The AJC and WSB were vigilant in their investigations, the reporting and the follow through.

As a result, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Attorney General and, in turn, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called for an unprecedented criminal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The GBI’s investigative files have now been turned over to the AG’s office.

Violators of Georgia’s open government laws should be prosecuted.

In 1998 the General Assembly gave the Attorney General specific authority to enforce the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Members of city councils, boards of education, county commissions, authorities and local government committees across the state of Georgia should be paying close attention to the egregious actions of previous city officials in Atlanta, the criminal investigation and possible charges, and learn from the steps the current administration is taking to improve public access.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in partnership with the AG’s office publishes Georgia Sunshine Laws: A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government online and the publication is also available in printed form by contacting members of the foundation’s board of directors.

GFAF provides open government training and speakers with expertise on Georgia open government laws, government transparency and First Amendment issues across the state. Local governments, media organizations or your civic group can request training at: Speaker/Training Request.

Jim Zachary

Jim Zachary, a foundation board member, is deputy national editor of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

Georgia First Amendment Foundation names Judge James Bodiford 2018 Weltner Award honoree

Cobb County senior judge recognized for keeping courts open during some of the state’s highest-profile criminal cases.

Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford has earned a reputation for protecting the public’s right to courtroom access while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases. Rather than restrict the public and media from attending those trials, Bodiford made provisions to keep the proceedings open — and maintained an orderly courtroom. He encourages other judges to open their courtrooms, as well, arguing that our judicial system works best when it’s accessible and transparent to citizens.

Judge James Bodiford

The open-courts commitment Bodiford has upheld over his more than 30-year career is why the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is honoring him with our 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award. Bodiford will receive the award at the foundation’s annual Weltner Banquet at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

A prime example of Bodiford’s dedication to courtroom access was the State of Georgia v. Ray Brent Marsh. In 2002, a tip led investigators to a northwest Georgia crematory where 334 corpses were discovered. Marsh, the crematory operator, was charged, and a local judge immediately entered a sweeping gag order that created chaos. Hundreds of families from three states were desperate for information about the remains of their loved ones, and people across the country closely followed the case.

The gag order left the Georgia Bureau of Investigation unable to provide basic information to families and the public. Bodiford was asked to take control of the case, and one of his first acts was to announce that he would be handling it in an open way, giving law enforcement and the media the latitude needed to keep the public informed. National, state and local media reported on every hearing. The public had full visibility into the legal process, which ultimately resulted in a plea that sent Marsh to prison.

Bodiford stayed true to these First Amendment principles in other high-profile cases, as well, including the murder trials of courthouse shooter Brian Nichols; Lynn Turner, who poisoned her husband with anti-freeze; and Fred Tokars, a one-time Atlanta lawyer and prosecutor who had his wife executed by a hit man in front of his young children. Bodiford kept proceedings open, gavel to gavel, amid constant media coverage. As the jury heard evidence, so did the public — a demonstration of the power of open courtrooms.

Bodiford’s record reflects an understanding of how modern media coverage provides a tremendous opportunity for the judiciary to make court proceedings more accessible and understandable to citizens. Even under the harsh scrutiny of high-profile trials, his commitment to transparency has not wavered.

A Cobb County native, Bodiford stepped down from daily trial work in 2014 and began serving as a senior judge. In addition to educating Georgia judges about the importance of courtroom access, he has traveled to Estonia, Bosnia and the Republic of Georgia to teach judges in those countries about how the American justice system works.

Learn more about GFAF’s Weltner Award, named for the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency, and see a list of past honorees.

Weltner Banquet art auction: No Obstruction to Free Speech

Large mobile represents relationships between U.S. presidents and free expression; auction proceeds will support the foundation’s mission.

The tangle of quotes in Richard T. Griffiths’ hanging mobile, No Obstruction to Free Speech, is designed to give context to the current relationship between the press and the President. The artwork shows how tensions of today are nothing new, says Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and a retired journalist who oversaw CNN’s global editorial quality control for more than 20 years.

Griffiths created the 6-by-4-foot mobile from wood, lasered urethane, stainless steel and galvanized wire. The artwork displays quotes from every U.S. president, as well as from Founding Fathers and select quotes from Supreme Court justices. Their words illustrate how America’s leaders have respected the ways independent journalism and free expression contribute to the stability of our democracy.

No Obstruction to Free Speech will be auctioned at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet, happening the evening of Oct. 17 at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. The annual banquet is the foundation’s most important fundraiser, and proceeds from the auction will directly support our mission to protect and expand free speech and public access to government records, meetings and court proceedings in Georgia. (Tickets are now on sale.)

Griffiths’ mobiles are on display at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism and private collections. No Obstruction to Free Speech was in part inspired by the tangle of coat hangers in Man Ray’s Dadaist work Obstruction that hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Join us: Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet, Oct. 17

Sponsorship opportunities and tickets available now — join us to celebrate and support open government in Georgia.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet is the greatest source of financial support for our narrow and essential mission: fighting for free speech, government transparency and access to public information in Georgia.

Our 2018 banquet is scheduled at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

We will honor Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford as recipient of our 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award. Bodiford has earned a reputation for protecting the public’s right to courtroom access while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

Join us by buying individual tickets, or become a sponsor and invite your colleagues and friends. Sponsorship benefits extend beyond the banquet and are at four levels:

  • Platinum—Eight tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full page in the program; all benefits of being an institutional GFAF member, including legislative updates and one complimentary open government workshop for your organization or company, $10,000.
  • Gold— Eight tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full page in the program, $5,000.
  • Silver—Six tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage, and a half-page in the program, $2,500.
  • Bronze—Four tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage and a quarter-page in the program, $1,500.

For information about becoming a 2018 Weltner sponsor, please call Lenora Kopkin at 678-395-3618 or email info@gfaf.org.

The Weltner Banquet and the foundation’s annual Freedom of Information Award are named for Charles L. Weltner, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who championed freedom of information and ethics in state government. The award honors his commitment to open, transparent government.

See photos from our 2017 banquet and a list of past Weltner Award winners at gfaf.org.

 

GFAF in the courts: Two wins and a wait

Courts are a battleground in the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s fight to protect and expand government transparency
By Peter Canfield

Georgia’s open government laws draw strength from insightful interpretation by the courts.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation plays a vital role in promoting that kind of interpretation by filing what are known as friend-of-the-court, or amicus, legal briefs designed to educate judges about the implications of their decisions.

Two recent victories in cases in which the foundation weighed in are worthy of attention, as is another case that’s still pending.

In June, the Georgia Supreme Court corrected a lower court ruling that had instructed public records custodians in the state not to release records unless Georgia’s Open Records Act required it. At issue were faculty research records that public universities aren’t required to release. Kennesaw State University, nevertheless, decided that it wanted to release the records. The state Supreme Court, overruling the Court of Appeals, held that the university had that prerogative.

In arguing for that result, the foundation was joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Georgia Press Association and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The foundation’s brief explained that the Court of Appeals’ decision made Georgia a national outlier, leaving citizens here with far less access to public information than they’ve had in the past or would enjoy in most other states and at the federal level.

Peter Canfield

The state Supreme Court corrected another Court of Appeals ruling last fall when it reiterated that private hospitals created by public hospital authorities are subject to open government requirements. The foundation, joined by other public interest and media groups, successfully argued that private entities performing functions for governmental agencies must do so transparently. Had the decision gone the other way, port authorities, local waste authorities, airports and a host of other entities acting on behalf of the government could have been privatized and their activities shielded from public scrutiny and review.

Still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a libel case against global news outlet CNN. At issue is whether Georgia citizens and companies should enjoy the state’s legislative protections for free speech if they are sued in federal courts located in the state. The lower court said no, a result that the foundation opposes. We believe that decision strips Georgians of much-needed protections. The case, which has been reported in the media industry press, is expected to be argued this fall.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. We want to hear from you. If you are aware of court cases that should be of interest to the foundation, let us know at info@gfaf.org. We need more eyes and ears watching what’s happening in our courtrooms. They are battlegrounds in the fight to protect and expand Georgians’ access to public records, meetings and proceedings.

Peter Canfield, a foundation board member, is a partner at Jones Day in Atlanta. The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

Ga. Supreme Court rules against restrictive interpretation of Sunshine Laws

Agencies can release information that qualifies for Open Records exemptions

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled this week that public information that otherwise might qualify for an Open Records Act exemption may be released if a government agency wants to disclose it.

“The justices’ unanimous decision makes clear the Georgia Supreme Court continues to be strongly committed to the value of open records,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “The open records law places no restrictions on public entities that want to be open and transparent, providing the best information to the public.”

In February, the foundation joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the caseBoard of Regents of the University System of Georgia and Campaign for Accountability v. Consumer Credit Research Foundation. The brief asked the state’s high court to overturn an appellate decision that had the potential to hobble Georgia’s Open Records Act.

The case began with a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Credit Research Foundation. CCRF, which is funded by the payday lending industry to support academic research on consumer finance, sought to block an open records request filed by the Campaign for Accountability. The Campaign for Accountability was asking for correspondence between CCRF and a Kennesaw State University professor who had received CCRF research funding.

Kennesaw State said it was willing to release the correspondence. CCRF then sued to block the release. A Fulton Superior Court judge ruled for Kennesaw State, concluding that although academic research exemptions gave KSU the authority to withhold the information, the university also had the right to release it. The Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed that decision, relying heavily on a 1995 case involving tax information that determined the state Open Records Act “mandates the nondisclosure of certain excepted information.”

The Supreme Court ruling on Monday overturned the appellate decision. “This is great news for the public’s right to know,” Griffiths said.

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Related media coverage

AJC:  Payday lending group loses lawsuit over record release

Daily Report: State high court rules KSU academic study correspondence is public record

Government transparency takes a hit in Georgia’s 2018 legislative session

Three key bills restricting access to public information set to become law July 1, 2018.

The General Assembly session was a busy one, and that was not a positive for government transparency. Many of the bills the Georgia First Amendment Foundation opposed were approved by lawmakers and now await Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature.

Legislation to shield information on lottery winners receiving more than $250,000 in state money got lawmakers’ OK. It sets a dangerous precedent.

A criminal justice reform bill significantly expands the mechanisms by which trial courts can seal court records and conceal criminal histories.

Information about foster parents can be redacted from Georgia Department of Human Services records under a bill that adds an unnecessary exemption to the Open Records Act. The measure shields information on individuals chosen by DHS to serve as foster parents.

Get a full review of all the bills we tracked and how they fared in our post-session Legislative Watch.

E-filing bill will delay public access to court records

Proposal tacked onto governor’s bill could be rushed to a vote on Tuesday.

An electronic-filing proposal that would jeopardize public access to court records in Georgia has found new life. The proposal died in a legislative conference committee last year, but it now has been added to the governor’s criminal justice reform bill and could be voted on by lawmakers as soon as Tuesday.

As it stands, the e-filing proposal — which was introduced as House Bill 15 and now is embedded into Senate Bill 407 — would substantially delay public access to electronically filed court records. That’s because it requires access upon “physical acceptance” by clerks, rather than immediately upon filing, which is current law.

“In the most technologically advanced courts, this change to the acceptance standard would regularly delay public access for days. In less efficient courts, the delay would be much longer. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes such delays violate the federal Constitution, and a recent decision in a federal court in Chicago supports our opinion,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors.

The problems with the bill would be relatively simple to fix. The foundation has suggested changes that would better align with the rights Georgians currently have to view court records as soon as they are filed.

“The e-filing provision must be carefully considered and improved to ensure timely access to court records,” Griffiths said. “This is a pretty easy fix. We urge lawmakers to make sure the public’s right to know does not fall victim to the General Assembly’s end-of-session rush.”

Please email media inquiries to info@gfaf.org.

Legislative Watch update: Transparency threats still alive under the Gold Dome

Two bills rated “negative” by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation continue to make their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 331 would allow lottery winners to remain confidential upon request. The foundation opposes this proposed legislation, which would shield information on individuals receiving significant sums of state money. It would set a dangerous precedent, despite a recent amendment to limit anonymity to winners of over $250,000. We see no way to improve this flawed bill.

Senate Bill 407 would broaden the ability of trial courts to retroactively seal court records of criminal defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act. It’s part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s multi-year legislative package to reform the Georgia criminal justice system. While many of those reforms have been positive, this proposed legislation takes a wrong step toward less transparency. The bill could be improved by aligning it with other criminal reform legislation that gives trial courts discretion to consider the public interest of criminal court records when deciding whether to seal them.

Get more details on these legislative proposals and several others we’re tracking in our updated Legislative Watch.