Transparency in the time of coronavirus: Tips for virtual government meetings

By Sarah Brewerton-Palmer

As the world reacts to the coronavirus pandemic, public meetings have suddenly become a threat to public health. In response, governmental entities across the state and the country are transitioning from in-person meetings to virtual meetings. The following tips will help local governments and state agencies in Georgia protect people’s health while upholding their commitment to open government.

What the law requires on a regular day

Here’s what Georgia’s Open Meetings Act requires during governments’ normal operations. The public must have access to all open meetings held by a government entity. The Act applies broadly to every agency, board, department, office or commission, whether at the city, county, state or regional level. Meetings can only be closed to the public in a very limited set of circumstances listed in O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3 (see the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia for more details). If a meeting does not fall into one of those exceptions, then it must be open to the public. Any action taken at a meeting that is improperly closed to the public is null and void.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer

In addition to providing access, government entities must give the public advance notice of any meeting. A regularly scheduled meeting requires notice at least one week in advance. For any other meetings, officials must provide notice at least 24 hours in advance (though providing more notice whenever practicable is a good idea). Government entities must also post an agenda in advance of any open meeting. Except for certain statewide agencies, all open meetings must be held in person.

Open government laws were designed for flexibility during emergencies

During emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the state Open Meetings Act allows for deviation from these procedures in two ways. First, if officials need to act quickly, a government entity can hold an emergency meeting without providing 24 hours’ notice. The agency still must provide the public with advance notice of the meeting and post an agenda, and the agency must also record in the meeting minutes the specific circumstances that justified holding an emergency meeting. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, agencies may need to call emergency meetings for a variety of reasons. Agencies should provide public notice of these meetings as early as possible so that members of the public have a chance to attend and participate.

Second, when there is a public safety emergency such as the one presented by coronavirus, government officials who are otherwise required to meet in person can instead conduct their meetings by teleconference. This is particularly important now, when in-person meetings would likely violate recent guidance to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

Technology makes public access manageable, even in a crisis

Whether it’s an emergency meeting or a regularly scheduled meeting by teleconference, members of the public still must have access. Amid today’s emergency procedures, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation encourages all of Georgia’s public agencies to explore technological solutions such as live streaming and teleconferencing that allow the public to attend remotely. A wide variety of platforms enable virtual meetings where members of the public could watch or listen to the actions taken by their governmental representative. If your agency normally has a process for public comment at meetings, consider asking attendees of virtual meetings to submit comments by email before or during the meeting.

Now more than ever, transparency in government is vital to giving the public confidence in their governmental representatives and ensuring they understand and have the ability to weigh in on actions taken under emergency conditions. As governments at all levels change their operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they must do so in a way that maintains and promotes Georgians’ access to the public’s business.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is available to help public officials, as well as citizens, as they navigate laws governing public access during this crisis. We encourage agencies to contact us with questions as they make the transition to virtual meetings. Reach us at info@gfaf.org.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, a foundation board member, is an attorney at Caplan Cobb in Atlanta.

RESOURCES

Enable public access with virtual meeting tools. Here are some options.

During the current coronavirus crisis, The Georgia First Amendment Foundation recommends that all government entities take advantage of the Open Meetings Act’s emergency procedures and meet by teleconference, rather than in person. Below is a list of platforms that provide free or relatively inexpensive livestream or teleconference services that can be used to run virtual meetings.

Many of these services allow a meeting host to selectively mute participants so that members can conduct a meeting without interruption. These services can also help facilitate a public comment period, whether by allowing members of the public to speak on the call or by soliciting comments through chat functions.

This list is not an endorsement of any of these services, and other options may be available. The foundation is providing this information as a resource only.

Webex by Cisco

  • Provides video streams or teleconferences with up to 200 participants
  • Features:
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, mobile app, or by dialing in to a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Recording ability
    • Includes a “Raise Your Hand” feature for participants joining online, which could be used to facilitate public comment
    • Chat function
  • Plans range from free to $26.95

Zoom

  • Provides video streams or teleconferences for up to 500 participants
  • Features
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, mobile app, or by dialing in to a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Recording ability
    • Chat function
  • Plans range from free to $20 per month

Meet by Google

  • Meet provides for a livestreamed video or audio feed for up to 250 participants
  • Features
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, a mobile app, or by dialing into a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Chat function
  • Google’s G Suite, which includes Meet teleconference and livestream service, has plans ranging from $6 to $25 per month

YouTube or Facebook livestream

  • YouTube and Facebook provide the ability to livestream video or audio feeds
  • Members of the public can watch the streamed meeting through a desktop browser or mobile app
  • Members of the public can participate using the comment or chat functions
  • These tools are free, though they are more suited for video than for an audio feed and require the use of a webcam

Local governments are already using tools like these to hold publicly accessible meetings during this crisis. Let us know what’s working for your agency.

 

 

The Legislature should follow Georgia’s Open Records Act

 By Richard T. Griffiths

Since the beginning of the Georgia Open Records Act, the Legislature has exempted itself from the state’s Sunshine Laws. Two identical bills, submitted by Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders in the House and Senate, would fix that.

If passed, Senate Bill 503 and House Bill 1159 would amend the Official Code of Georgia to require “the General Assembly, including its individual members, committee, commissions, and offices…” to comply with the state Open Records Act.

With the Legislature on hiatus and lawmakers in self-quarantine because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, no action is imminent. Meanwhile, some political watchers are questioning the true intent of the legislation. Is it just political gamesmanship? Worse, is it an attempt by lawmakers to get their open records exemption on the record?

Richard T. Griffiths, GFAF president emeritus

At the moment, the state’s strongest legal rationale for why the General Assembly is exempt from the Open Records Act — as a recent court case demonstrated — is that the Legislature is not explicitly mentioned in the Act. The state argues that through that omission, legislators effectively exempted themselves from the law they created. If SB 503 and HB 1159 fail, would that bolster the case that the Open Records Act shouldn’t apply to the Legislature? Could lawmakers say that they considered including the General Assembly in the state’s Sunshine Laws, but then decided against it?

These are skeptical views of how business gets done at the statehouse. But we at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation have a more optimistic perspective. We think the very existence of these transparency proposals is welcome news for Georgians who want more openness in our state government.

Clear power, opaque processes

The General Assembly has an operating budget of about $45 million a year, and it helps decide what happens to a $27.4 billion budget in taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers set tax policy and make laws regulating life for all Georgians, including professional standards for occupations. But the Legislature isn’t required to be transparent about its documented processes, procedures or precisely how the money set aside for legislative business is allocated.

Much of what the Legislature does happens in the open, but that’s largely at the discretion of lawmakers. The rules that govern transparency in each chamber and committee are just that, rules, not laws. And arcane chamber rules are often hard for the layman to track down. That’s led to tension with journalists, advocacy groups and the public when legislators hold back on showing exactly how the sausage gets made.

Legislators make the case that they shouldn’t have to hand over sensitive emails and letters they get from constituents back home. They point out that House and Senate leaders effectively honor open records requests on such matters as expense accounts.

But the reality is that the Legislature’s open records exemption allows state senators and representatives to hide contacts with special interests and lobbyists, as well as bad behavior. Efforts by journalists to understand the extent of sexual harassment settlements involving senators, for example, were thwarted, even as the Senate made changes to its policy on sexual harassment and reviewed the case of an accused senator in secret.

The public has a right to know

The foundation applauds the governor and his floor leaders for proposing legislation that would make the Open Records Act apply to the General Assembly. When lawmakers return to the statehouse, the governor and his floor leaders need to twist some arms to get these bills turned into law. And citizens should take action, too. Email and call your legislators to remind them that the General Assembly’s business is the public’s business.

If the coronavirus crisis teaches us anything, it is that knowledge is power. And the people have the right to know what their elected representatives are doing. The public deserves to be informed about everything that is happening under the Gold Dome, not just what our elected officials decide we should know.

Richard T. Griffiths is president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Legislative Breakfast explores emerging open government issues in 2020 General Assembly

Transparency implications of proposed legislation dominated the discussion at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Legislative Breakfast on Jan. 23.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, state Rep. Josh McLaurin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist James Salzer and First Amendment attorneys Tom Clyde and Peter Canfield examined issues emerging in the General Assembly session, including bills that would:

  • Limit public access to criminal records
  • Impose restrictions on journalists
  • Require “truth-in-taxation” transparency
  • Curb private companies’ control over access to public records
  • Require all-party consent for recording non-public conversations

The lawmakers gave their take on the viability of these measures and offered behind-the-scenes perspectives on how business gets done under the Gold Dome.

The breakfast was held at the Georgia State University College of Law in downtown Atlanta. It was co-sponsored by student chapters of the American Constitution Society and the Black Law Students Association.

Do you want accountable government? You should support local journalism

By Richard T. Griffiths

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

Here’s what happens to communities when local journalism collapses: Taxpayers pay more and know less.

When local newspapers shut down, county payrolls swell, jumping $1.4 million within a year of a newspaper closing. Taxpayers pay more in taxes—an increase of about $85 per capita. It costs more to borrow money for government projects like roads and schools. But these distressing pocketbook issues, documented by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago and Notre Dame, aren’t the only bad news.

When people live in news deserts, voter participation falls off dramatically, as researchers from the University of Texas and Cleveland State University found. Democracy takes a hit.

That’s why it was so alarming when this message popped up on the website of the Waycross Journal-Herald this fall: “Stop the Presses. The Waycross Journal-Herald, which has been owned and operated by the Williams family since 1916, will cease publication as of September 30th.”

And why it was such a relief when owners of The Brantley Beacon in Nahunta bought the Waycross Journal-Herald a few weeks later and began operating it as a weekly publication. Southeast Georgia got a reprieve.

Local journalism is disappearing in Georgia

But let’s face it. The Fourth Estate — the constitutionally recognized protector of the public interest guaranteed by the First Amendment — is no longer there in many parts of Georgia. Even in bigger communities, local journalism is wilting as social media and search engines gobble up ad dollars and redistribute news content for free.

This presents challenges not only for the media business, but also for local and state governments. Concerned citizens who don’t have a news surrogate are increasingly seeking public documents and demanding access to public meetings. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation know this because those citizens are asking for copies of our Red Book, Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia. They’re using our sample letters to draft their requests in line with the state’s Open Records Act.

And when they get confusing responses from their government officials — or no response at all — they’re contacting us or the office of state Attorney General Chris Carr for help. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, and Carr exercised that authority earlier this year when his office filed the first-ever criminal charges for open records violations against a former City of Atlanta press secretary.

Who enforces transparency for state agencies?

That case, now playing out in court, highlights one of the key issues we at the foundation see emerging in the 2020 General Assembly session that will kick off in January.

When the state attorney general fights against Open Records Act violations committed by a local government officials, it’s not simple, but it is straightforward. The state’s highest-ranking lawyer is fighting to uphold state laws. But what happens when the open government dispute is between a citizen or a news organization and a state agency? The AG’s office might issue an opinion that supports transparency before the dispute results in litigation. But once court papers are filed, the attorney general’s role must be to defend the state agency. It’s Carr’s job to do so. It’s in the state constitution.

The foundation would like to challenge Attorney General Carr and his terrific team of attorneys — who played an important role in checking the legal facts in our recently updated Red Book — to think a bit about how we might ease that potential conflict. Is there a mechanism that could be created in those cases so the official responsible for enforcing open records laws is not in the position of having to defend a state agency for not following the law? We at the foundation believe it is worthwhile for our state lawmakers and other officials to consider solutions.

Keeping Georgians informed and holding the powerful accountable

And as the legislative session draws near, we have a challenge for the voters, taxpayers, businesspeople and elected officials who benefit from accountability journalism in their local communities. Recognize the value journalism delivers, and get engaged. Buy a newspaper. Subscribe to a local news site. Watch your local evening news. Contribute to the public radio and television stations that keep you informed. If you don’t like a story, say so. But don’t dismiss it as fake news until you’ve really explored what the reporters and editors in your communities are doing to keep you in the know and hold the powerful accountable.

Otherwise, here’s a glimpse of things to come. In the waning days of the last legislative session, six state representatives rolled out House Bill 734 — the so-called “Ethics in Journalism Act.” The bill calls for a journalism oversight board and for accreditation of all journalists working for news organizations in Georgia. There’s even a misguided twist on Georgia’s open government laws, where interview subjects would have the right to all outtakes and interview transcripts within three days of an interview. Mind you, this is coming from the only public officials in Georgia who have specifically exempted themselves from Georgia’s Open Records Act — that’s right, our state Sunshine Laws don’t apply to the General Assembly.

Why do legislators want to make news less available?

It’s doubtful that this bill, as written, would make it through the Legislature. And if it did, the judges and justices in our courts would probably find it unconstitutional. But it’s still very, very troubling.

That’s because House Bill 734 was proposed by six Georgia lawmakers who have standing in the communities they serve: a businessman, a pharmacist, a marketing consultant, a lawyer, a retired county agent and a real estate developer. A few years ago, no one of their stature would have dared propose such a bill. They would never have wanted to go home and explain why they were taking legislative steps to reduce the public’s access to legitimate news and information.

Now, in the siloed, algorithm-driven world of news via social media, these lawmakers’ views on journalism mirror opinions held by a third of Americans — nearly half of Republicans — who agree with the president of the United States that the media is “the enemy of the American people.”

Core principles of democracy

Those of us who believe in accountability journalism and open and transparent government as core principles in the preservation of our democracy must make our case to these lawmakers and the citizens they represent. We must work much harder to explain how a robust media helps Georgians stay healthier and safer, keeps watch over taxpayer dollars, follows the trail of corruption and champions the public’s right to know.

News deserts devolve into democracy deserts. That’s why we must cherish and protect our rights to government access, support accountability journalism in our communities and be grateful that the well of local news isn’t running dry in places like Waycross.

Richard T. Griffiths will become president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation on Jan. 1, 2020.

State Rep. Jay Powell, advocate for updated Sunshine Laws, dies at 67

State Rep. Jay Powell, chairman of the House Rules Committee, died Nov. 25 while attending a Republican legislative leaders retreat in Young Harris. He was 67.

The late Georgia state lawmaker Jay Powell was instrumental in the 2012 update and expansion of Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. Source: Georgia House of Representatives

Powell, an attorney from Camilla, was instrumental to the 2012 update and expansion of Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. He was a sponsor of the bill that improved Georgians’ access to government meetings, proceedings and records, working alongside Sam Olens, then the attorney general, to shepherd the proposal through the legislative process.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation supported the legislation and partnered with Powell and other state officials to educate lawmakers and the public about the benefits of strengthening Georgia’s government transparency laws.

Commentary co-authored by Powell and Olens, published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March 2012, explained the improvements. “[The legislation] makes clear that final votes have to be taken in public, including on real estate transactions. It clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request. It lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page. It enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations. It requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed. And it provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing us to bring civil or criminal actions against violators with increased fines so that they serve as a meaningful deterrent instead of just a slap on the wrist.”

This year, for the first time ever, an alleged violation of Georgia’s Open Records Act led to criminal charges—demonstrating those “teeth” in the law.

The Sunshine Law updates Powell championed are reflected in the foundation’s recently updated Red Book, Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia. Learn more about Powell’s career and legacy in articles published in the AJC and Albany Herald.

2019 Weltner Banquet to honor legacy of late Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines

Chief Justice Harold Melton will be the keynote speaker for the event, which will mark the foundation’s 25th anniversary with an award to GFAF co-founder Hyde Post.

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines, who died last fall, was praised for his judicial acumen, fairness and kindness. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation remembers him as a

The late Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines is 2019’s Weltner Award honoree.

friend of our organization and our open government cause, and we are honoring his legacy with a posthumous Weltner Freedom of Information Award at our annual Weltner Banquet on Oct. 10.

Buy tickets now.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, a close friend and former colleague of the late chief justice, will give the keynote address at the banquet.

This year also marks GFAF’s 25th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, we will present our Founder’s

GFAF founding member Hyde Post

Award to Hyde Post, co-founder, board member and past president of the foundation, to recognize his many years of service to our organization and his tireless advocacy for open government in Georgia and across the country. Post was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Open Government Hall of Fame in April.

This year’s Weltner Banquet will take place at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 10, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. See details below on how to become a Weltner Banquet sponsor.

Honoring Chief Justice Hines’ legacy

Hines, who retired from the bench in August 2018 at the age of 75, was a regular at our annual Weltner banquets, named for the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency. Last year, Hines appeared in a video tribute to our 2018 honoree, Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford, whom we recognized for repeatedly protecting the public’s right to courtroom access, even as he presided over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

Hines himself was a Cobb County Superior Court judge in the early 1990s when the Marietta Daily Journal filed a lawsuit against Promina Health System and Northwest Georgia Health System seeking an injunction requiring the defendants to comply with Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. Hines ruled in favor of the Journal, setting a precedent of public access to records of a private, nonprofit hospital doing work on behalf of a governmental hospital authority. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed his ruling in 1995.

Then-Justice Hines also wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Howard v. Sumter Free Press in 2000, which compelled the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to comply with the state Open Records Act. The opinion rejected an allegation that the newspaper’s records requests were not bona fide because they were made verbally. As recently as early 2018, in Tucker v. Atwater, Chief Justice Hines joined justices Keith Blackwell and Nels Peterson in questioning whether Tift County school officials had gone too far in punishing a teacher for comments made on her private Facebook account.

Chief Justice Hines was killed in a Nov. 4 car accident on I-85. He was en route to his home in Marietta from Newnan, where he had heard his granddaughter sing in a church choir. The day after his death, Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias gave a heartfelt statement about how much Hines would be missed.

GFAF President Richard T. Griffiths said, “Chief Justice Hines’ legacy of service is an inspiration to all of us who strive to make a difference in the lives of Georgians. We are grateful for his many years of support for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and look forward to welcoming his family and friends to celebrate of his life and legacy at our 2019 Weltner Banquet.”

Join the celebration as a sponsor

Join the celebration of Hines’ legacy and the foundation’s quarter century of essential work as a sponsor of this year’s Weltner Banquet. The annual fundraiser is the greatest source of regular financial support for the foundation’s mission to protect and expand government transparency, accountability journalism and free speech in Georgia.

Sponsorships are available at four levels:

  • Platinum—Eight tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full-page advertisement 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 advertisement in the program, $5,000.
  • Silver—Six tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage, and a half-page advertisement in the program, $2,500.
  • Bronze—Four tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage and a quarter-page advertisement in the program, $1,500.

To become a sponsor, please call Lenora Kopkin at 678-395-3618 (office) or 770-331-2524 (mobile) or email info@gfaf.org. Sponsorship deadline is Sept. 24.

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.

GFAF’s new Red Book lets the sunshine in

By Richard T. Griffiths

Let’s all sing together: “Let the sunshine in!” As a group of us huddled in a conference room preparing a sixth edition of our Red Book, the lyrics of a song from the 1967 musical Hair bubbled up in my consciousness, with its warning about how, “Silence tells me secretly ev’rything, ev’rything.”

The resounding chorus answers: “Let the sunshine in! Let the sunshine in!”

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

While I doubt many Georgia state representatives were thinking about that musical when our state’s open records and meetings laws were written, the Legislature essentially codified the sentiment of that chorus.

So, why is this important?

Fundamental to a healthy democracy is the public’s ability to make good decisions based on good information. For the public to get good information, government must be transparent, even if sometimes that is uncomfortable for the public officials in whom we have placed our trust.

Over the years, Georgia’s public officials have understood the need for transparency. The result is the collection of laws detailed and explained in our latest edition of the Red Book. Officially titled Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia, the book arms you with tools to exercise your right to obtain public records and attend meetings where decisions are made. For public officials, it provides a guide on how best to help citizens access the information they already own.

Here’s what is new about the 2019 Red Book:

  • It contains the latest versions of Georgia’s open records and meetings statutes, which reflect some minor legislative changes since 2012. It also includes references to recent court rulings that support Georgia’s government transparency laws.
  • We’ve revised our recommendations on how to ask for public information, both through tips aimed at making the process less adversarial and in form letters that cover requests for increasingly prevalent digital records.
  • You’ll find an updated list of resources in the back.
  • And, finally, because none of us are getting any younger, we made the type a bit bigger. The 2019 Red Book is much easier to read, especially when the sun is not shining or when we have a song stuck in our heads.

GFAF_RedBookCover_2019All Georgia First Amendment Foundation members will soon be getting a copy of the Red Book in the mail. So, ensure you receive one and support the foundation’s important work at the same time by becoming a member at any level. Bulk purchases of the book cost a nominal per-copy fee of $2.

We at the foundation would like to thank the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia for working with us on the substance of the book. We also are grateful to the William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Georgia Press Association and Cox Media Group for providing vital funding for producing this new edition.

Richard T. Griffiths is president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Expanded GFAF government transparency outreach hopscotches across Georgia

Next open government training May 15 at Atlanta Press Club

A Decatur County lawman laments the time he spends redacting police body-camera video to protect the privacy of children and other bystanders. A newly elected Georgia mayor wonders why personnel records are available to the public. And at a gathering of public information officers, many want to know if they should archive local government social media posts.

These are the government transparency issues public officials and the people they represent are asking, and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is helping cut through the complexities during statewide travels this year. We’re delivering training on Georgia’s open records and open meetings laws and promoting the benefits of government transparency as public information goes increasingly digital.

_______________________________________________________________________

Want to attend one of our training sessions? Join us for Government Transparency in Georgia: What You Need to Know on May 15, an event in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club. It’s free and open to all who register.

_______________________________________________________________________

From Athens to Tifton, Atlanta to Savannah and about a dozen other stops in between, GFAF board members are handing out our signature guides to open government and encouraging a spirit of cooperation among government officials, the public and journalists. Our ramped up efforts this year are made possible in large part through a Cox Media Group grant provided to the foundation last fall.

We provided training at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s gathering of metro Atlanta public information officers. We audited an open records training session at the Georgia Municipal Association’s Mayors’ Day conference and met new city officials at GMA’s Newly Elected Officials conference.

Our board members also have given open government presentations this year at the University of Georgia, Augusta University and Georgia State University College of Law. We’ve talked to records custodians from a local chapter of the American Records Management Association and to lawyers at gatherings held by the State Bar of Georgia and county bar associations.

GFAF board members Kathy Brister and Jim Zachary speak with Stacy Jones of UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government at April county commissioner conference.

At the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual conference in Savannah in late April, we answered commissioners’ questions, handed out our open government guides and promoted our training at a booth tucked between vendors Radarsign and Georgia Safe Sidewalks.

Participating in the county commissioner conference put us in front of 700 attendees, a large audience filled with the elected officials we want to reach with our open government message and educational opportunities. In June, we’ll provide open meetings training and staff a booth at the Georgia Municipal Association Annual Convention, which anticipates attendance from as many as 2,400 city officials from across Georgia.

We also have this year’s Georgia Press Association annual conference and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters annual convention on our calendar. And we’re sponsoring events in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club—supporting the groups that also support our First Amendment mission.

Our training is provided by First Amendment attorneys and seasoned journalists who serve on our board or committees. You are welcome to request a training session for your group, and we’ll do our best to accommodate.

 

GFAF founder Post inducted into national Open Government Hall of Fame

Hyde Post, who helped found the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in 1994, was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Open Government Hall of Fame April 13 at the organization’s annual FOI Summit in Dallas.

Hyde Post named to National Freedom of Information Coalition Hall of Fame

The honor reflects Post’s long and steady effort to preserve and protect the free flow of public information that is vital to democracy.

“This is well-deserved recognition for one of Georgia’s strongest champions of government transparency,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “It honors Hyde’s commitment to robust open meetings and open records laws.”

Post established GFAF’s pattern of collaborating with public officials to publish guides to open government and transparency in law enforcement. He also led the organization’s efforts to educate lawmakers about the importance of preserving and strengthening public access to government meetings, proceedings and records.

Post’s passion for public access to government emerged through his work as a journalist. Projects he directly oversaw for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won two Pulitzer prizes. He used his platform at the AJC to advocate for openness and transparency in the halls of government and in the courts. His résumé gave credibility to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in its early days, and his leadership ensured the organization’s influence for more than two decades.

Post also furthered the open government cause nationally, serving as president of NFOIC from 2009 to 2012. He was instrumental in bringing together state open government organizations to strengthen their collective impact.

Post is now retired from journalism and has stepped down from leadership roles at GFAF and NFOIC, but  he continues to support government transparency as a member of GFAF’s board of directors.

The NFOIC State Open Government Hall of Fame began in 2003. Inductees from 14 states have been honored for their dedication to protecting citizens’ rights. Post is one of four inductees in the 2019 Hall of Fame class. Joining him are South Dakota journalist Brian Hunhoff, Texas attorney and legislative advocate Laura Lee Prather and California open records advocate Richard P. McKee.

The recognition highlights Post’s government transparency legacy, Griffiths said.

“The generally positive climate in Georgia toward open and transparent government reflects Hyde’s tireless work,” he said. “Georgia’s public officials simply would not have the same respect for open government if it had not been for Hyde’s thoughtful advocacy.”

Foundation promotes open government at conference for freshman city officials

Newly elected mayors and city council members from across the state talked about the importance of open and transparent government with Georgia First Amendment Association Vice President Jim Zachary at the Georgia Municipal Association Newly Elected Officials Institute, March 7-8.

GFAF board member Jim Zachary promotes government transparency at the 2019 Newly Elected Officials Institute hosted by the Georgia Municipal Association.

Zachary answered questions about the state’s Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act and provided copies of GFAF’s Red Book, Georgia’s Sunshine Laws: A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government.

More than 100 officials from over 60 cities attended the GMA event, which was held at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center.

“Freshman city officials from all around the state—St. Marys, Walnut Grove, Columbus, Lawrenceville, Blackshear, Fitzgerald, Poulan, Lake City, Ashburn, Hoschton—and several other cities came by to talk,” Zachary said. “They are energized about entering public service and conscientious about the need to conduct the public’s business out in the open.”

The foundation offers open records and meetings training to public officials around the state and encourages government agencies and individual elected officials to join the organization to access resources and support the principles of government transparency. Learn more at gfaf.org or to by emailing info@gfaf.org.