Do you want accountable government? You should support local journalism

By Richard T. Griffiths

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

Here’s what happens to communities when local journalism collapses: Taxpayers pay more and know less.

When local newspapers shut down, county payrolls swell, jumping $1.4 million within a year of a newspaper closing. Taxpayers pay more in taxes—an increase of about $85 per capita. It costs more to borrow money for government projects like roads and schools. But these distressing pocketbook issues, documented by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago and Notre Dame, aren’t the only bad news.

When people live in news deserts, voter participation falls off dramatically, as researchers from the University of Texas and Cleveland State University found. Democracy takes a hit.

That’s why it was so alarming when this message popped up on the website of the Waycross Journal-Herald this fall: “Stop the Presses. The Waycross Journal-Herald, which has been owned and operated by the Williams family since 1916, will cease publication as of September 30th.”

And why it was such a relief when owners of The Brantley Beacon in Nahunta bought the Waycross Journal-Herald a few weeks later and began operating it as a weekly publication. Southeast Georgia got a reprieve.

Local journalism is disappearing in Georgia

But let’s face it. The Fourth Estate — the constitutionally recognized protector of the public interest guaranteed by the First Amendment — is no longer there in many parts of Georgia. Even in bigger communities, local journalism is wilting as social media and search engines gobble up ad dollars and redistribute news content for free.

This presents challenges not only for the media business, but also for local and state governments. Concerned citizens who don’t have a news surrogate are increasingly seeking public documents and demanding access to public meetings. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation know this because those citizens are asking for copies of our Red Book, Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia. They’re using our sample letters to draft their requests in line with the state’s Open Records Act.

And when they get confusing responses from their government officials — or no response at all — they’re contacting us or the office of state Attorney General Chris Carr for help. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, and Carr exercised that authority earlier this year when his office filed the first-ever criminal charges for open records violations against a former City of Atlanta press secretary.

Who enforces transparency for state agencies?

That case, now playing out in court, highlights one of the key issues we at the foundation see emerging in the 2020 General Assembly session that will kick off in January.

When the state attorney general fights against Open Records Act violations committed by a local government officials, it’s not simple, but it is straightforward. The state’s highest-ranking lawyer is fighting to uphold state laws. But what happens when the open government dispute is between a citizen or a news organization and a state agency? The AG’s office might issue an opinion that supports transparency before the dispute results in litigation. But once court papers are filed, the attorney general’s role must be to defend the state agency. It’s Carr’s job to do so. It’s in the state constitution.

The foundation would like to challenge Attorney General Carr and his terrific team of attorneys — who played an important role in checking the legal facts in our recently updated Red Book — to think a bit about how we might ease that potential conflict. Is there a mechanism that could be created in those cases so the official responsible for enforcing open records laws is not in the position of having to defend a state agency for not following the law? We at the foundation believe it is worthwhile for our state lawmakers and other officials to consider solutions.

Keeping Georgians informed and holding the powerful accountable

And as the legislative session draws near, we have a challenge for the voters, taxpayers, businesspeople and elected officials who benefit from accountability journalism in their local communities. Recognize the value journalism delivers, and get engaged. Buy a newspaper. Subscribe to a local news site. Watch your local evening news. Contribute to the public radio and television stations that keep you informed. If you don’t like a story, say so. But don’t dismiss it as fake news until you’ve really explored what the reporters and editors in your communities are doing to keep you in the know and hold the powerful accountable.

Otherwise, here’s a glimpse of things to come. In the waning days of the last legislative session, six state representatives rolled out House Bill 734 — the so-called “Ethics in Journalism Act.” The bill calls for a journalism oversight board and for accreditation of all journalists working for news organizations in Georgia. There’s even a misguided twist on Georgia’s open government laws, where interview subjects would have the right to all outtakes and interview transcripts within three days of an interview. Mind you, this is coming from the only public officials in Georgia who have specifically exempted themselves from Georgia’s Open Records Act — that’s right, our state Sunshine Laws don’t apply to the General Assembly.

Why do legislators want to make news less available?

It’s doubtful that this bill, as written, would make it through the Legislature. And if it did, the judges and justices in our courts would probably find it unconstitutional. But it’s still very, very troubling.

That’s because House Bill 734 was proposed by six Georgia lawmakers who have standing in the communities they serve: a businessman, a pharmacist, a marketing consultant, a lawyer, a retired county agent and a real estate developer. A few years ago, no one of their stature would have dared propose such a bill. They would never have wanted to go home and explain why they were taking legislative steps to reduce the public’s access to legitimate news and information.

Now, in the siloed, algorithm-driven world of news via social media, these lawmakers’ views on journalism mirror opinions held by a third of Americans — nearly half of Republicans — who agree with the president of the United States that the media is “the enemy of the American people.”

Core principles of democracy

Those of us who believe in accountability journalism and open and transparent government as core principles in the preservation of our democracy must make our case to these lawmakers and the citizens they represent. We must work much harder to explain how a robust media helps Georgians stay healthier and safer, keeps watch over taxpayer dollars, follows the trail of corruption and champions the public’s right to know.

News deserts devolve into democracy deserts. That’s why we must cherish and protect our rights to government access, support accountability journalism in our communities and be grateful that the well of local news isn’t running dry in places like Waycross.

Richard T. Griffiths will become president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation on Jan. 1, 2020.

Expanded GFAF government transparency outreach hopscotches across Georgia

Next open government training May 15 at Atlanta Press Club

A Decatur County lawman laments the time he spends redacting police body-camera video to protect the privacy of children and other bystanders. A newly elected Georgia mayor wonders why personnel records are available to the public. And at a gathering of public information officers, many want to know if they should archive local government social media posts.

These are the government transparency issues public officials and the people they represent are asking, and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is helping cut through the complexities during statewide travels this year. We’re delivering training on Georgia’s open records and open meetings laws and promoting the benefits of government transparency as public information goes increasingly digital.

_______________________________________________________________________

Want to attend one of our training sessions? Join us for Government Transparency in Georgia: What You Need to Know on May 15, an event in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club. It’s free and open to all who register.

_______________________________________________________________________

From Athens to Tifton, Atlanta to Savannah and about a dozen other stops in between, GFAF board members are handing out our signature guides to open government and encouraging a spirit of cooperation among government officials, the public and journalists. Our ramped up efforts this year are made possible in large part through a Cox Media Group grant provided to the foundation last fall.

We provided training at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s gathering of metro Atlanta public information officers. We audited an open records training session at the Georgia Municipal Association’s Mayors’ Day conference and met new city officials at GMA’s Newly Elected Officials conference.

Our board members also have given open government presentations this year at the University of Georgia, Augusta University and Georgia State University College of Law. We’ve talked to records custodians from a local chapter of the American Records Management Association and to lawyers at gatherings held by the State Bar of Georgia and county bar associations.

GFAF board members Kathy Brister and Jim Zachary speak with Stacy Jones of UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government at April county commissioner conference.

At the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual conference in Savannah in late April, we answered commissioners’ questions, handed out our open government guides and promoted our training at a booth tucked between vendors Radarsign and Georgia Safe Sidewalks.

Participating in the county commissioner conference put us in front of 700 attendees, a large audience filled with the elected officials we want to reach with our open government message and educational opportunities. In June, we’ll provide open meetings training and staff a booth at the Georgia Municipal Association Annual Convention, which anticipates attendance from as many as 2,400 city officials from across Georgia.

We also have this year’s Georgia Press Association annual conference and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters annual convention on our calendar. And we’re sponsoring events in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club—supporting the groups that also support our First Amendment mission.

Our training is provided by First Amendment attorneys and seasoned journalists who serve on our board or committees. You are welcome to request a training session for your group, and we’ll do our best to accommodate.

 

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.

Open government victory in Habersham County

Check out this open government victory in Habersham County. In short, the Court decided that Habersham officials violated the State’s open meetings and records laws.  The Court ruled that the County faces $41K in fines, plus legal fees, over the Airport Authority’s special meetings and emails.  Here is an excerpt from yesterday’s article in the Gainesville Times.

“A judge has found that Habersham County officials failed to comply with the state’s open meetings and records laws. Gainesville attorney Julius Hulsey, who represented local residents and a government employee whistleblower who brought the suit against the Habersham Board of Commissioners and Airport Authority, said Habersham officials have been ordered to pay legal fees and civil fines in excess of $41,000. “Most, if not all, of this award will have to be paid by Habersham County taxpayers because of the county commissioners’ failure to comply with the law,” Hulsey said.

“The Airport Authority was alleged to have held special meetings in February, June, July and September of 2014 without properly announcing them to the public, either by failing to publish notices in the local newspaper or failing to post notices in a timely manner at the location where such meetings were held. The lawsuit claimed that officials improperly called closed meetings to discuss a contract for an airport fixed-base operator and used private email addresses to communicate and share records in an effort to circumvent open records laws.

“Hulsey told The Times last summer that the case included elements that resemble Hillary Clinton’s imbroglio over using private email accounts, as well as similarities to allegations that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady destroyed his cellphone and evidence that could have implicated him in deflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage. Commissioners and members of the Airport Authority denied the allegations from the start.

“Habersham County Manager Phil Sutton said Friday that it is undecided whether the county will appeal.”