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.

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.

 

How Senate Bill 59 will protect the bad guys

By Richard T. Griffiths 

Nightclubs catering to underage teens, a significant security breach at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a con artist ripping off brides-to-be. Each one was exposed through the work of undercover journalists in Georgia who made secret recordings. The recordings both proved and vividly illustrated the

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

shenanigans, leading to change and significant action.

Recording in secret is a tool journalists use to help them protect the public’s interest and uncover the less savory parts of our society. For most news organizations, going undercover is reserved for the most difficult stories and often means some personal risk for the journalists.

Right now, in Georgia and 37 other states, that kind of investigative journalism is legal. Only one participant in a conversation needs to agree to a recording that secretly captures evidence of bad behavior. Georgia’s current law matches federal statutes.

But a bill proposed by state Senate Rules Committee Chair Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, would change that. His bill, Senate Bill 59, would require that all parties agree to being recorded. It would change Georgia from what is called a “one-party consent state” to an “all-party consent state.”

Why would lawmakers propose or support such a change? Here’s the background:

A recording last year of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Casey Cagle seriously damaged the then-lieutenant governor’s campaign. The secret recording was made by another gubernatorial candidate, Clay Tippins. In it, Cagle could be heard saying he supported “bad” policy because it would hurt another candidate in the race. The embarrassing recording was made public during Cagle’s GOP runoff against Brian Kemp; voters resoundingly rejected Cagle.

The power of that recording got lawmakers’ attention. Now some want to make such recordings illegal, and in the process they would make it a criminal act for journalists to use one-party recordings to expose wrongdoers.

But it’s not just journalists who would become criminals.

  • A domestic abuse victim who records threats or abuse on a concealed mobile phone would be a criminal, too. The illegal recording might be thrown out as evidence in court. And the victim of abuse could actually end up being prosecuted.
  • Even going live on Facebook could create risks. Would everyone being recorded have to agree before the recording is posted? Would video of a street-corner shouting match cross a legal line? Would police have the only authority to record video of a traffic stop?
  • And what about those doorbell cameras? Would recording a conversation with a suspicious visitor at your door be illegal? Would your effort to fight crime by posting that video to alert your neighbors now itself be a crime?
  • And if you recorded a scammer who keeps calling an elderly relative offering high-cost services they don’t need, that could be illegal, too.

This bill would take away from Georgia citizens’ ability to protect themselves.

The only people in Georgia who would benefit from Senate Bill 59 are bad guys who are likely to be embarrassed by or even imprisoned because of undercover recordings. For the millions of Georgians who don’t break the law, don’t do or say things they shouldn’t, there’s no reason for this misguided proposal.

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

Make plans to attend Ga. Bar Media & Judiciary Conference Feb. 22, 2019

Register now for the 28th Annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference, scheduled 9 a.m. to 5 pm. on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, at the State Bar of Georgia Conference Center in downtown Atlanta.

Sessions will explore emerging First Amendment issues in the courts, in the media and in government. The conference is co-sponsored by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and its board members play a key role organizing the event.

For the first time in Georgia, Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum will present “Law, Justice and the Holocaust,” a program that’s captivated audiences across 40 states for more than a decade.

Also on the schedule:

  • New tests for the media: Keeping public trust in a polarized world
  • City of Atlanta transparency
  • New rules for public access to the courts
  • Podcasting Georgia’s civil rights past
  • Civility and free speech on college campuses
  • WABE’s “Political Breakfast,” live and on the record
  • Back by popular demand, the day-long event will wrap up with a reception.

The public is welcome. Advance registration is $250 for lawyers seeking CLE credit and $30 for everyone else. The cost includes lunch and parking. Fees increase $100 on the day of the conference.

REGISTER NOW

2019 GFAF Legislative Breakfast recap

Panelists discuss transparency issues related to sexual harassment reporting, voting machines, schools and hospitals as the Georgia Legislature opens.

(L-R) Tom Clyde, James Salzer, Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid, Marissa Dodson, Sen. Jennifer Jordan and Cynthia Counts.

A panel of elected officials, First Amendment lawyers and a seasoned Gold Dome journalist weighed in on potential transparency threats emerging in the 2019 General Assembly session during the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Legislative Breakfast on Jan. 24.

On the agenda: New rules for filing sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers. Big changes to Georgia’s voting system and a potential $150 million price tag. Eroding access to public school operations and performance. And a move to add visibility to the business operations of many hospitals.

The lively discussion took place at the Georgia State University College of Law. Co-sponsors of the event were the GSU chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, the Black Law Student Association and the Latinx & Caribbean Law Student Association. First Amendment attorney and GFAF board member Cynthia Counts moderated the discussion.

If you missed it, we’ve got you covered with a video of the event. Highlights include:

  • State Sen. Jennifer Jordan laments the proposed new sexual harassment policy lawmakers unveiled as the 2019 session started (start at the 2:38 mark).
  • Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, a GFAF board member, says the City of Atlanta’s transparency problems were an eye-opener for other local governments and describes how agencies should respond to open records requests from citizens (6:32).
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s longtime statehouse journalist James Salzer wants the Legislature to abide by the same transparency laws that lawmakers have placed on local governments (9:25).
  • Marissa Dodson, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, talks about the role of statewide Accountability Courts and data available to the public to measure their success (16:42).
  • First Amendment attorney and GFAF board member Tom Clyde weighs in emerging open

    Tom Clyde

    government issues, including the loss of transparency in school testing and possible added insight into the business operations of many of Georgia’s hospitals (22:25). He also lays out what Georgians don’t know about the proposed changes to voting processes and new voting machines (46:40).

The full video also provides a lively debate about the role of police body cameras and a more detailed conversation about Georgia’s shift to new voting machines and processes.

State immigration board agrees to improve transparency

Following foundation’s court filing supporting City of Decatur lawsuit, board resolves open records and meetings concerns

Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board pledged to operate more transparently as part of a court settlement with the City of Decatur and the law firm that represents it, ending a dispute that has lingered since 2017.

In a consent order, the board agreed to post meeting schedules and summaries online and otherwise comply with the state’s open meetings and open records acts. The board approved the settlement at a special called meeting Jan. 8 and later posted a summary of what transpired.

The settlement came three weeks after the Georgia First Amendment Foundation joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in a friend-of-the-court brief that supported the Morton, Wilson, & Downs law firm’s suit and contended the Immigration Enforcement Review Board was not following the state’s open records laws, as it claimed.

The origins of the case stretch back to November 2017 when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, then a gubernatorial hopeful, filed a complaint with the board against Decatur. His complaint alleged the city failed to properly cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement authorities. Cagle did not publicly push the case after he lost the Republican primary runoff in July.

Immigration Enforcement Review Board members in 2018.

The immigration board, whose members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House of Representatives, reviews complaints alleging local governments are not complying with state immigration laws.

In addition to highlighting transparency violations, the dispute between Decatur and the board drew attention to board members staying beyond their term limits, which prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to name replacements.

 

Georgia’s 2018 right-to-know milestones

Reflecting on a year of transparency challenges and opportunities.

As 2018 comes to a close, Georgians can look ahead to a more transparent future.

The biggest news: What started as an ugly records fight between news organizations and the City of Atlanta led to the Georgia attorney general’s first investigation into a public records violation and may create a model for open government. What’s more, a related settlement will fund open government training throughout Georgia.

Here is a look back at events that helped or hurt public access and government transparency statewide in 2018, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.

Extraordinary donations announced at Weltner Banquet will boost transparency training

At our 2018 Weltner Award Banquet, we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent. During the October banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News also announced an $80,000 donation funded by the news organizations’ settlement with the City of Atlanta that will be used to provide open government training to public officials, members of the public and journalists across Georgia.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a donation through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management. The university will provide $10,000 to update the foundation’s popular open government guidebooks. The Georgia Press Association also is contributing $1,000 toward the guidebook revisions.

Support from these donors and sponsors of our annual fundraising event added up to more than $136,000 — an extraordinary amount underscoring that our open government mission is more important than ever.

Legislative Breakfast foreshadows a tough session for transparency

At our Legislative Breakfast, lawmakers, reporters and government watchdogs gathered at Georgia State School of Law to discuss potential threats to transparency in Georgia. It turned out that the 2018 General Assembly session was not a good one for the public’s right to know.A bill passed to let big lottery winners keep their names secret, although they receive millions of dollars from the state. A criminal justice reform bill passed that significantly expanded trial courts’ability to seal court records and conceal criminal histories. A bill passed that adds an unnecessary exemption to the Open Records Act; it enables the Georgia Department of Human Services to shield from the public information on people chosen by the department to serve as foster parents. The bills became law July 1.

State’s highest court rulings promote transparency

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

Justices also approved a rule change that would generally keep existing protocols in place for audio and video recording in courtrooms, as well as give judges discretion about whether people can use electronic devices to type and text in their courtrooms.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Court of Appeals confirmed that citizens who request public records should not be hassled about the reason for their requests.

Keep up with what the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has planned for 2019 by becoming a member today.

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

Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines advocated for the public’s right to know

In the days following former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines’ death on Nov. 4, he has been praised for his judicial acumen, fairness and kindness. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation remembers him as a friend of our organization and our cause.

Hines, who had just retired from the bench in August, was a regular at our annual Weltner Award Banquet. He introduced past honoree Sam Olens, and, in October, appeared in a video tribute to the openness and transparency of this year’s honoree, Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines

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.

As a Supreme Court justice, Hines wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Howard v. Sumter Free Press, which compelled the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to comply with the Open Records Act. The opinion rejected an allegation that the newspaper’s records requests were not bona fide because they were made verbally.

Earlier this year, in Tucker v. Atwater, 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.

Foundation board member and First Amendment attorney F.T. “Tread” Davis was a lawyer on the 1990s hospital authority case and remembered Hines fondly. “He was a champion of the First Amendment,” Davis said. “He was the epitome of judicial temperament and thoroughness, besides being a wonderful human being.”

Hines, 75, was killed in a car accident on I-85 en route to his home in Marietta from Newnan, where he had heard his granddaughter sing in a church choir. His memorial service at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 will be broadcast live from First Presbyterian Church of Marietta.

Donors pledge more than $136,000 in great show of support for the foundation’s open government mission

Contributions announced at Oct. 17 Weltner Award Banquet will help educate Georgians on the public’s right to access public documents, meetings and proceedings.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation has received pledges, sponsorships and individual donations adding up to more than $136,000 — a robust display of support for protecting and expanding open government in our state.

Cobb Judge James Bodiford, with Jim Zachary (L) and Amelia Weltner

The funds were contributed in conjunction with the foundation’s annual Weltner Award Banquet on Oct. 17. The banquet, which honored Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford, was one of the nonprofit’s most successful fundraisers ever, attracting more than 120 attendees and 11 event sponsors.

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.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a generous donation through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management. The university will provide $10,000 to update the foundation’s popular open government guidebooks. The Georgia Press Association also is contributing $1,000 toward the guidebook revisions.

“In a time when trust in government is at all time lows, transparency is one of the best tools for building trust,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors. “We intend for these funds to be used to provide training in Atlanta and throughout the state for the public, journalists and government officials. That means, in particular, we will be in a position to help the City of Atlanta as it builds out its extraordinary openness initiative.”

Donation emerges from settlement with city

The AJC, Channel 2 and the City of Atlanta recently settled a complaint that the newsrooms filed in April with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. The complaint alleged “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed. Under terms of the settlement, 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 settlement money will fund the news organizations’ donation to the foundation.

Alex Taylor, chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises, parent company of the news outlets, said in a statement, “We couldn’t be more proud of the team at WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its watchdog reporting on this incredibly important matter and proving, once again, that local journalism matters.

“The First Amendment and state laws such as the Georgia Open Records Act are essential to our democracy and freedom as citizens because they enable us to see how our government works,” Taylor said. “We support the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in its mission to hold our public officials accountable and demand transparency in government.”

Honoring commitment to courtroom access

At the banquet, Bodiford accepted the foundation’s 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award, making him the 17th honoree to receive the award. It was presented by Amelia Weltner, granddaughter of the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency for whom the award is named.

The foundation recognized Bodiford for his 30-year commitment to protecting the public’s right to courtroom access. The Cobb senior judge kept his courtroom open while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

In his keynote speech, Bodiford encouraged other judges to remember that the judicial system needs “the confidence of the public” to succeed. “The more they know, the better they’ll feel about it,” he said.

>>> Watch WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News report, read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article about the donation and check out the Daily Report’s coverage of the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.