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.

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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Fighting for the First Amendment: What we’re watching now

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation fights to secure and preserve access to public information and proceedings in Georgia. Our work is vital to open government and unfettered newsgathering that benefits all Georgians. Here are a few of the issues we’re keeping an eye on now:

• 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. GFAF advocates for Georgians’ right to know.
• 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 body cameras bring more transparency to policing.
• Convicted criminals are increasingly being permitted to erase past criminal records. GFAF is 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.
• 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. GFAF is working to prevent Georgia from imposing such long delays that the right to these records becomes meaningless.
• Georgia courts have recently issued rulings that erode transparency of public hospitals, law enforcement and other institutions. GFAF and First Amendment partners have taken action in the courts to oppose this erosion of public access.
• 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. GFAF is working to ensure public records are accessible to all citizens.
• Language on Georgia ballots has become increasingly misleading, hampering voters’ ability to make informed choices and reducing government transparency. GFAF is tracking this disturbing trend and investigating what can be done to curb it.

Become a First Amendment advocate and fight for access to public information, government transparency and free speech by becoming a GFAF member today. It’s your right to know.