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.

AG fines hospital authority, orders open government training

MARCH 31 – VALDOSTA, Ga – The State Attorney General’s Office has ordered the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County to pay a $500 civil penalty to the State of Georgia and to participate in an open government training session with the Attorney General’s Office.

The Attorney General’s Office admonished the Hospital Authority following an investigation into allegations it had violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act. The authority oversees South Georgia Medical Center.

At its Feb. 17 meeting, scheduled for 9:30 a.m., the authority announced it had already been in executive session prior to the start of the advertised public meeting.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires governing bodies to meet in an open, public meeting after proper notification before voting to go into executive session.

In a March 3 letter addressed to Walter New, general counsel for the Hospital Authority and SGMC, Jennifer Colangelo, the assistant attorney general, listed allegations that the authority violated the act when it: conducted an executive session prior to the scheduled starting time of the meeting, discussed matters in executive session that were not permitted, failed to properly notify the public of the topics being discussed in executive sessions and failed to properly notify the public of matters being voted on.

In New’s response to the assistant attorney general dated March 11, the authority admitted to violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act by meeting prior to the scheduled start time.

Per the allegation that the authority discussed unauthorized matters in executive session, New stated “the lack of specificity illuminating Mr. Zachary’s (editor of The Valdosta Daily Times) allegation in this regard makes a response difficult.”

New further stated the allegation “lacks sufficient specificity to permit any direct response,” but “there are a number of matters which can be easily classified as operational to which the Act itself does not apply.”

New also admitted the authority failed to notify the public properly of topics being discussed in executive session, although, he said, the executive session agenda was made available at the beginning of the 8 a.m. meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

New wrote the last allegation “is essentially the same issue addressed in number three.”

The Attorney General’s Office was not satisfied with the response of the authority’s attorney.

In her response mailed Wednesday, Colangelo wrote, “If we were to proceed to litigation or prosecution, we would expect fines to be levied against any public officials who participated in these alleged violations should they prove to be true, as well as fees and costs against the Hospital Authority.”

Colangelo explained the penalty for each person or entity who violates the laws may be up to $1,000 for the first violation and up to $2,500 for each additional violation within a 12-month period.

“However, I believe that we can resolve this matter without litigation,” she said in the letter, asking the Hospital Authority to sign a memorandum of understanding that admits to the violations and agrees to the settlement terms.

The Attorney General’s Office gave the authority 20 days to respond to the settlement offer.

“Although I understand that the Hospital Authority has already taken steps to bring its meeting notices into compliance with the Open Meetings Act, the Hospital Authority has in the past violated the Open Meetings Act by starting executive sessions at 8 a.m., even though the start time of the regularly scheduled meetings has been announced to be 9:30 a.m. In addition, the Hospital Authority has failed to approve meeting minutes by the time of the next regular meeting in violation of O.C.G.A 50-14-1(e)(2)(B),” Colangelo wrote in the letter.

The Hospital Authority approved meeting minutes for Oct. 21, 2015, Nov. 11, 2015, Dec. 16, 2015, Jan. 20, 2016, Feb. 1, 2016 and Feb. 17, 2016 at its most recent meeting Tuesday, March 22.

The memorandum of understanding requires the hospital authority to:

• admit to repeated violations regarding meeting times;

• admit to violation of meeting minute requirements by not ratifying minutes in timely fashion;

• attest and pledge it will post correct starting times for all meetings;

• attest and pledge it will approve minutes and make the available by the time of the next regular meeting;

• agree to participate in an Open Government training session with the Attorney General’s Office;

• agree to pay a $500 fine with subsequent violations within 12 months being subject to fines of up to $2,500.

The Office of the Attorney General is requiring that the authority’s chairman, Sam Allen, sign the memorandum of understanding and that the fine be paid to avoid a lawsuit.

When asked for comment Wednesday afternoon, New’s office said it had not received any word of the reprimand.

The complete letter from the Attorney General’s Office and memorandum of understanding are available online: valdostadailytimes.com. For more information on this case, contact Editor Jim Zachary – jim.zachary@gaflnews.com.