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.

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.