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.

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.”

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

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.

New City of Atlanta open records approach a ray of sunshine

By Jim Zachary

The city of Atlanta has passed sweeping open government legislation that should be a model across Georgia.

Let’s be clear.

Atlanta did not have a great track record when it comes to open government under its previous administration.

The ordinance passed Monday seems to be a good faith effort to right the ship by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the current administration.

Essentially, the city will now have an open government ombudsman, a transparency officer, tasked with policing open records compliance.

All city employees who handle public documents will be required to complete open records training.

And a new website will give the public a way to track open records requests in real time.

Along with Mayor Bottoms, give credit to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV for fighting the good fight, holding Atlanta officials accountable, exposing corruption in city government and negotiating with city leaders for these sweeping changes.

Their reporting led to a criminal investigation of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration around the stalling of records requests and even the falsification of public documents.

The media has an important role to play in holding local government accountable.

The AJC and WSB were vigilant in their investigations, the reporting and the follow through.

As a result, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Attorney General and, in turn, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called for an unprecedented criminal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The GBI’s investigative files have now been turned over to the AG’s office.

Violators of Georgia’s open government laws should be prosecuted.

In 1998 the General Assembly gave the Attorney General specific authority to enforce the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Members of city councils, boards of education, county commissions, authorities and local government committees across the state of Georgia should be paying close attention to the egregious actions of previous city officials in Atlanta, the criminal investigation and possible charges, and learn from the steps the current administration is taking to improve public access.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in partnership with the AG’s office publishes Georgia Sunshine Laws: A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government online and the publication is also available in printed form by contacting members of the foundation’s board of directors.

GFAF provides open government training and speakers with expertise on Georgia open government laws, government transparency and First Amendment issues across the state. Local governments, media organizations or your civic group can request training at: Speaker/Training Request.

Jim Zachary

Jim Zachary, a foundation board member, is deputy national editor of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

GFAF in the courts: Two wins and a wait

Courts are a battleground in the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s fight to protect and expand government transparency
By Peter Canfield

Georgia’s open government laws draw strength from insightful interpretation by the courts.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation plays a vital role in promoting that kind of interpretation by filing what are known as friend-of-the-court, or amicus, legal briefs designed to educate judges about the implications of their decisions.

Two recent victories in cases in which the foundation weighed in are worthy of attention, as is another case that’s still pending.

In June, the Georgia Supreme Court corrected a lower court ruling that had instructed public records custodians in the state not to release records unless Georgia’s Open Records Act required it. At issue were faculty research records that public universities aren’t required to release. Kennesaw State University, nevertheless, decided that it wanted to release the records. The state Supreme Court, overruling the Court of Appeals, held that the university had that prerogative.

In arguing for that result, the foundation was joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Georgia Press Association and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The foundation’s brief explained that the Court of Appeals’ decision made Georgia a national outlier, leaving citizens here with far less access to public information than they’ve had in the past or would enjoy in most other states and at the federal level.

Peter Canfield

The state Supreme Court corrected another Court of Appeals ruling last fall when it reiterated that private hospitals created by public hospital authorities are subject to open government requirements. The foundation, joined by other public interest and media groups, successfully argued that private entities performing functions for governmental agencies must do so transparently. Had the decision gone the other way, port authorities, local waste authorities, airports and a host of other entities acting on behalf of the government could have been privatized and their activities shielded from public scrutiny and review.

Still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a libel case against global news outlet CNN. At issue is whether Georgia citizens and companies should enjoy the state’s legislative protections for free speech if they are sued in federal courts located in the state. The lower court said no, a result that the foundation opposes. We believe that decision strips Georgians of much-needed protections. The case, which has been reported in the media industry press, is expected to be argued this fall.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. We want to hear from you. If you are aware of court cases that should be of interest to the foundation, let us know at info@gfaf.org. We need more eyes and ears watching what’s happening in our courtrooms. They are battlegrounds in the fight to protect and expand Georgians’ access to public records, meetings and proceedings.

Peter Canfield, a foundation board member, is a partner at Jones Day in Atlanta. The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

How to get the public information you want: Guidance from an elected official

By Lisa Cupid

One area where my positions as a citizen and an elected official fully align is in my support for government transparency. Transparency helps citizens get information they need, and it also helps elected officials get out information about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why.

Lisa Cupid

The process of transparency is often adversarial. Instead of citizens and elected officials working together to get to the bottom of a matter, transparency is often hampered by a presumption of conflict that gets everyone off on the wrong foot. Requesters of information may think that elected leaders always have something to hide. Elected officials and even government staff may be frustrated by requests that seem too broad or seem to make demands without regard for courtesy.

Let me be clear: Information that is accessible to the public under Georgia law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution must be provided by government entities without exception. Even if the request is broad or demanding. Still, if you are a citizen or journalist making a request, the way you ask for information can actually improve the likelihood of getting relevant information as soon as possible.

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Watch a video of Commissioner Cupid discussing the importance of good communication when seeking public information.

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So, what’s behind our transparency process problem? In my experience, there are a few causes.

There might truly be bad intent on behalf of those requesting information or those with a desire to withhold it. But this is actually the least common of all the causes I’ve witnessed.

  • More often, a request for information might take a long path to the right source. As an elected official, I often get requests for information from constituents, and while I am happy to help them, the quickest route would be to for them to walk into or call the county clerk’s office. Making the request of those closest to the documentation will almost always yield a more thorough and faster response.
  • A problem with transparency also might be caused by a downright lack of knowledge about the law. Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act are long and complex. That’s why the Georgia First Amendment Foundation produces a citizen’s guide to the state’s Sunshine Laws. Even though I am a foundation board member, lawyer and two-term elected official, I have found myself in the awkward position of not knowing that an action taken by the board of commissioners was in violation of the Open Meetings Act. I’m confident many other public officials have had the same experience.
  • By far, most transparency issues emerge from miscommunication or from challenging exchanges between those seeking information and those charged with providing it.

So, what can we do to smooth and simplify the flow of public information?

If you are a citizen or journalist, ask for help — not just in receiving information, but also in how to ask for it clearly and concisely. Go to the clerk’s office, email the planning department, call the staff person who administers a program in which you are interested. Tell them what you would like to know and ask for guidance on the most efficient way to get that information. Most of us in public service feel we are called to help. Requests framed with that understanding appeal to the very core of why we are in our respective positions: to serve the public good.

Become versed in Georgia’s open government laws so you can identify whether access to information is being intentionally or ignorantly subverted. Check out the foundation’s tips for requesting public information, as well as our Red Book, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, mentioned above. In addition, look for opportunities for in-person training; our foundation experts lead or participate in several government transparency training sessions throughout the year. If you don’t already receive our training schedules and updates, email us at info@gfaf.org and ask to be added to the list.

If you are a government employee or elected official, seek out information and training sessions — including refresher courses — to ensure you understand transparency laws and have current knowledge. Again, the foundation is a great resource. Check out not only the Red Book, but also the Blue Book, Georgia Law Enforcement and the Open Records Act. The foundation provides in-person open government training to agencies, as well; email us at info@gfaf.org to learn more.

In today’s climate of political contentiousness and “fake” news, it can be wise to go to the original source of public information. The foundation’s efforts help support a free flow of facts that creates more informed citizens and more engaged and responsive elected officials. Whether you’re an interested citizen, an elected official — or, as in my case, both — that is help we all can benefit from.

Lisa N. Cupid, a GFAF board member, is an attorney and a Cobb County commissioner representing District 4.

Updated 2018 Legislative Watch tracks lottery bill and other transparency issues

A bill that would allow lottery winners to remain confidential gets a negative rating on our updated Legislative Watch of bills making their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 331 would shield information on people receiving significant sums of state money. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes the proposal, if successful, would set a dangerous precedent. We see no potential improvements that would remedy this bill.

Other legislative measures we’re watching include Senate Bill 407, which would broaden the ability of trial courts to retroactively seal court records of criminal defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act. House Bill 716 would allow police to make a pre-arrest diversion for drug and mental health treatment; it is unclear whether there would be any public record of this exercise of police power. We have a negative view of both these bills, as well.

Get more details on these proposals and several others we’re tracking in our full Legislative Watch. Plus, see why the foundation believes the secrecy surrounding Georgia’s bid for Amazon keeps taxpayers in the dark about how the state is spending their money to woo business.

2018 bills we’re watching now

We’re tracking government transparency legislation as the 2018 General Assembly picks up this month, and here are some of the most important ones we’re watching, both good and bad. Click here to read our full track list.

SB 331 –  This bill would shield information on lottery winners receiving significant sums of state money.

SB 311 -This bill appears to be a well-intentioned effort to allow public access to courtroom recordings made by court reporters, but it sweeps too broadly and would make all court records subject to the Open Records Act and, therefore, the Act’s exemptions, fees and time requirements.

HB 15 – The original bill required electronic filing of most civil court records, but contained no provision to protect public access to such filings in a timely way, either at the courthouse or electronically. Instead, it arguably made court records subject to the Open Records Act, the three-day waiting option and the Act’s exemptions.