Georgia’s 2017 right-to-know milestones

The public’s right to know in Georgia ended 2017 with a mixed scorecard.

On the plus side, the state’s high court affirmed that Northside Hospital and others similarly organized are subject to open records laws. Georgia senators decided to join their House counterparts, allowing video transmissions of committee meetings for the first time, starting in 2018.

But 2017 also had some setbacks. A jury found a citizen journalist guilty of a misdemeanor for an incident that arose from her recording of a political rally. A court ruled that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records, a setback for legal affairs podcasts. And a remake of the state’s judicial watchdog appears to leave it less transparent, not more open, as legislators had promised.

Our year in review includes a detailed look at events that had an impact on public access and government transparency statewide, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.

January

February-March

  • Throughout the General Assembly session, the foundation encourages lawmakers to tread lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech. The foundation engages with lawmakers on legislative proposals related to electronic filing of court records; redaction of portions of state Division of Family and Children Services records; reconfiguration of the Judicial Qualifications Commission; drone regulations; and so-called “upskirting” restrictions. (For a full recap, check out our post-session Legislative Watch.)

April

  • Georgia House of Representatives sends a remake of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to the governor to sign. Supporters say the revamp increases transparency and reins in an overly aggressive judicial watchdog. Critics say giving lawmakers control over the commission will politicize it.
  • The Atlanta Press Club honors longtime foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer with its Impact Award.

May

June

July

  • The Judicial Qualifications Commission remake becomes state law, as does new guidance for drone use and other measures passed by the 2017 General Assembly.

September

  • The newly remade Judicial Qualifications Commission dismisses a case against a Georgia judge whose actions led to jailing of the Fannin Focus publisher and his lawyer. The commission discharged the complaints after an investigation that did not include contacting those who filed complaints.

October

  • The state Senate agrees to permit video transmission of its committee hearings.
  • The foundation honors The Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis at its 2017 Weltner Banquet.
  • A case involving the Undisclosed true-crime podcast ends with a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records. The foundation opposes the Court’s position and suggests an alternative approach.

November

  • The Georgia Supreme Court affirms government transparency laws apply to Northside Hospital in a case the foundation closely watched and weighed in on through court filings. The ruling supports the principle that publicly created institutions are bound by state open records laws, even if they reorganize as nonprofits. In an indication of the statewide impact, the Savannah Morning News soon cites the ruling in its ongoing efforts to get records from a local hospital.

December

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Open government protections fared well in legislative session

There were a few nail-biting moments for government transparency advocates during this year’s state General Assembly session. But, in the end, lawmakers treaded lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation engaged with lawmakers on several legislative proposals, laying out the pros and cons for public access. Here’s a short list of what kept us busy until the end of the session:

House Bill 9/Senate Bill 45: Neither of these “upskirting” bills passed, but the General Assembly did add narrow language to Senate Bill 104 making it illegal to film someone under or through clothing. The language does not restrict legitimate newsgathering or videotaping. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Bill 15: The foundation fought to make sure this bill requiring electronic filing of court records contained protections for public access. The proposed legislation was amended repeatedly as it made its way through the House and Senate, but it failed to emerge from a conference committee on the last day of the session. Given that final versions of the bill potentially impeded free and immediate access to court records, even at the courthouse, the failure of the bill was a good result for Georgians. However, we expect the bill to emerge again in next year’s legislative session.

House Bill 75: This bill permits the state Division of Family and Children Services to redact portions of its records before providing them to the public. The allowable redactions relate to information provided by law enforcement or prosecuting agencies in pending investigations or prosecutions. It passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

This bill is worrisome because it may limit disclosure of information in public DFACS records about children who die or are harmed while in DFACS custody. But its restrictions align with similar laws that apply to police records.

The bill’s proponents argued the law would help increase communication between DFACS and law enforcement agencies. The foundation will monitor future impacts of the law, watching for unnecessary restrictions to public access of DFACS records.

 House Bill 126: This bill reconfigures the Judicial Qualifications Commission, creating separate investigative and hearing panels to address alleged misconduct by judges. The bill also specifies transparency requirements requiring that the JQC make public:

  • Commission reports on informal dispositions of disciplinary matters; these reports are to be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court
  • Proceedings after formal charges are filed
  • Administrative matters of the commission.

Matters involving the alleged “incapacity” of a judge for health reasons will be sealed, but the records can be released by the commission under certain circumstances. The bill passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

 House Bill 481: This bill prevents local governments from enacting future regulations that conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules limiting drone activity. The bill preserves the FAA and the state as rulemakers on drone usage in Georgia. It prevents the passage of conflicting local ordinances that could have complicated the use of drones for newsgathering and other activities in the public interest.

For a full recap of the bills we monitored throughout the session, including those that didn’t survive Crossover Day, check out our updated Legislative Watch.

Amended e-filing bill threatens access to court records

An amended e-filing bill continues to jeopardize public access to court records in Georgia.

As it stands, House Bill 15 would give court clerks extraordinary power to delay the public’s access to electronically filed court records and impose burdensome fees for viewing them.

Under the proposed legislation, e-filed court documents would not be subject to public access until they are processed and officially “accepted” by a state or superior court clerk. That means citizens may not be able to view many court records until days after they are filed. In addition, the bill places no limit on what clerks could charge the public to access the records.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee, which met March 16, amended the bill to prevent government entities, including court clerks, from obtaining any portion of e-filing fees. But it’s still possible for clerks to implement fees to the public to view electronically filed court records at the courthouse —something that would be unprecedented in Georgia.

HB15 does not mandate electronically filed records be available for immediate viewing at courthouses. That would be a departure from existing judicial rules, which require a public terminal for free viewing at the courthouse as a minimum standard for electronic filing.

In a recent letter to committee members, foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer detailed ways HB15 could be amended to maintain existing protections for free and immediate public access to court filings at the courthouse. The foundation will continue to encourage lawmakers to maintain these traditional public access protections as the bill moves through the General Assembly.

The legislative session is scheduled to come to a close at the end of March.

Foundation calls on lawmakers to protect Georgians’ access to electronically filed court records

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is calling on state Senate Judiciary Committee members meeting today to modify an electronic-filing bill to better protect public access to court records.

In its current form, House Bill 15 could result in a fee for simply viewing court records — something that would be unprecedented in Georgia. The Senate Judiciary Committee meets at 4 p.m. today to consider the bill.

In a March 15 letter to committee members, foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer outlined problems in the proposed legislation and suggested modifications. The bill currently would require electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically.

Instead, it states that records are not subject to disclosure until physically accepted by a clerk – a provision that could delay access to public records.

In addition, the bill does not include a requirement that electronically filed records be available for viewing free of charge at the courthouse upon filing, something judicial rules now require as a minimum standard for electronic filing.

Electronic filing bill remains top GFAF legislative concern; could erode public access to court records

Accessing court records could take longer and cost more if an electronic-filing measure making its way through the Georgia General Assembly passes in its current form. House Bill 15 tops the “negative” bills detailed in our updated Legislative Watch.

The bill requires electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically.

Instead, it states that records are not subject to disclosure until physically accepted by a clerk – a provision that could delay access to public records.

In addition, the bill does not include a requirement that electronically filed records be available for viewing at the courthouse, something judicial rules now require as a minimum standard for electronic filing. The absence of this requirement could result in a charge for simply viewing electronic records, something that would be unprecedented in Georgia.

House Bill 15 should be modified to include minimum standards for electronic filing adopted by the Judicial Council of Georgia in 2014 and embraced by the Georgia Supreme Court. Those rules state that electronic documents must be publicly accessible upon filing for review at no charge on a public access terminal available at the courthouse during regular business hours.

Read our updated Legislative Watch to find out more about House Bill 15, including its sponsors, and get details on other proposals that survived crossover day in the Georgia General Assembly and their effects  — negative and positive — on the openness and transparency of government in Georgia.

 

Legislative Watch Crossover Day update: E-filing, drone rules among surviving bills

We’ve updated our Legislative Watch after Crossover Day to reflect what’s happening with open government-related legislative proposals still making their way through the Georgia General Assembly. Check out the bills we’re concerned about and our suggested improvements to provide for greater government transparency, access to public records and meetings and support of free speech.

House Bill 15 would require electronic filing for certain civil superior and state court records. We continue to see major problems.

We see pros and cons with:

  • House Bill 9 to prohibit filming under or through clothing.
  • House Bill 75, to allow the Georgia Department of Human Services to withhold copies of law enforcement records contained in DHS files related to pending investigations into child abuse and deprivation.
  • House Bill 126, which would provide for operating principles and procedures for the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.
  • House Bill 481, which would allow preemption of local drone rules and ordinances.

The session is scheduled to come to a close at the end of March.

Electronic filing bill could erode access to court records

Accessing court records could take longer and cost more if an electronic-filing measure making its way through the Georgia General Assembly passes in its current form. House Bill 15 tops the “negative” bills detailed in our updated Legislative Watch.

The bill requires electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically. Instead, it arguably makes court records, now available to the public upon filing, subject to the state Open Records Act. That could enable a three-day waiting period, as well as other exemptions.

In addition, the bill might be interpreted to allow a charge up to $7 “per transaction” to inspect court records electronically, which could drive up costs for citizens seeking court records and chill public access.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation would like to see House Bill 15 modified with provisions that:

  • Require clerks to keep free terminals or other means of free access to recently filed court records soon after filing.
  • Provide reasonably priced electronic access to members of the public.
  • Remove all references to the state Open Records Act.

Read our updated Legislative Watch to find out more about House Bill 15, including its sponsors, and get details on other proposals that would conceal potential conflicts of interests by donors to rural hospitals; reinforce public access to school accreditation records; increase transparency in state pardon and parole processes; and have other effects — negative and positive — on the openness and transparency of government in Georgia.

To stand a chance of becoming law, bills must move from the originating chamber to the other one by Crossover Day, March 3, 2017.

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2017 Legislative Watch list tracks government transparency, access bills

We’re finding plenty to keep an eye on in Georgia’s ongoing General Assembly session. Measures to make the pardon and parole process more transparent; better define accessibility of police body camera recordings; and reinforce openness of school accreditation records are positives. But we see major problems with a bill that would potentially conceal conflicts of interest for financial donors to rural hospitals. Download our full Legislative Watch list.

Legislative Watch: Looking ahead to 2017

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation spends 100 percent of our time advocating for and educating about access to public information, government transparency and free speech. Much of that work happens at the state General Assembly, where we fight for open government and unfettered newsgathering that benefits all Georgians.

The Georgia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9. Here are our top priorities as the session approaches:

Advocating for transparency in policing

 Police are spending tax dollars to acquire body cameras, but then refusing to provide the video to the public. Police agencies are claiming it is their right to prevent the public from seeing the video for an indefinite period of time so long as they say an investigation is “open.” GFAF is working hard to make sure laws related to body cameras bring more transparency to policing across the state.

Urging openness for the state’s judicial watchdog

 A new constitutional amendment allows legislators to remake the state’s 40-year-old judicial watchdog agency. Lawmakers will appoint some Judicial Qualifications Commission members, and the state Senate will confirm all JQC appointments. In addition, the legislation behind the JQC changes states the findings and records of the commission “shall not be open to the public except as provided by the General Assembly.” We’re urging lawmakers to build openness and transparency into operations of the recreated JQC.

Exposing secret business deals

 The Georgia General Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation expanding the secrecy around the state’s negotiations with companies that want to put factories in Georgia. Government officials want to decide what is best for communities without consulting citizens. We’re advocating for Georgians’ right to know.

 Keeping information about public institutions open to the public

The Georgia General Assembly and the Georgia courts have repeatedly taken steps that erode transparency of public hospitals, law enforcement and other institutions. GFAF and First Amendment partners have taken action in the courts and in the Legislature to oppose this erosion of public access.

Speeding up access to public information

The Georgia General Assembly is delaying public and press access to records related to Georgia college sports. The public has a right to see for themselves what contracts are being signed, what misconduct has occurred and what actions have been taken. We’re working to prevent such long delays that the right to these records becomes meaningless.

Preventing the erasure of criminal histories

 Convicted criminals are increasingly being permitted to erase past criminal records. We’re fighting to make sure these “erasure statutes” do not leave Georgia businesses and citizens at risk of hiring employees who have been found guilty of serious crimes.

Promoting effective records management and reasonable access costs

 The rapid pace of digitization of public records has public agencies and institutions increasingly outsourcing their records management to commercial vendors. Without vigilance by GFAF, these vendors drive up cost of public records, thereby limiting access to private citizens who cannot pay commercial rates.

In addition, digitization has led to a change in some fees for record retrieval. Per-page fees have given way to “research” or “redaction” fees that can significantly drive up the cost of obtaining public records. GFAF is working to ensure public records are accessible to all citizens at a reasonable cost.

We’ll update our Legislative Watch as the General Assembly draws nearer and more bills are filed. Become a member and receive our e-mail newsletters with legislative updates and other First Amendment news.


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