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.

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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.

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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.

 

Teaching the public’s right to know

Richard T. Griffiths

Barely a week goes by that you don’t hear about a public agency or official in Georgia falling short of the transparency required by the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Some have almost certainly been intentional violations in which public officials were caught red-handed, deliberately thwarting the public’s right to know.  But many violations are unintended, the result of well-meaning public officials simply not understanding what is required of them.

Hunger for understanding the Sunshine Laws was on display in October in Alpharetta when more than 40 public officials from as far as Gainesville – many records custodians – attended another Georgia First Amendment Foundation training session explaining the requirements and intricacies of Georgia’s open government laws.  The officials showed they were enthusiastic about the benefits of open government and anxious to do the right thing.

The same day as that Alpharetta training event, supporters of the foundation were gathering in Atlanta for our annual fundraiser, the Weltner Award Banquet, where we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his extraordinary career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent.

But it was also the fundraising component of the evening that was extraordinary.  Donors pledged to write checks for more than $136,000 for the foundation’s work, donations that will allow us to shift our training programs into overdrive.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley and WSB News Director Misti Turnbull announce $80,000 donation at the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.

During the banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News announced an $80,000 donation that the foundation will use to provide open government training across Georgia. The news organizations, both part of the Cox Media Group, in April filed a complaint with the Georgia attorney general alleging the City of Atlanta maintained “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed.

The AJC and WSB settled with the city in early October. Under the terms, the City Council and new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms agreed to take substantial steps to increase transparency and also to pay the news organizations $80,000 as partial reimbursement of legal fees. That money will now be used by the foundation to provide transparency training for public officials, members of the public and journalists statewide.

We offer training like the session we delivered in Alpharetta to citizens, public servants and journalists all over the state, including the City of Atlanta.

We were also delighted to announce during our banquet that the Georgia First Amendment Foundation received funding to republish significantly updated versions of our guidebooks that detail the public’s right to access its government under state law. The Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management, will provide $10,000 to update the books. The Georgia Press Association is contributing $1,000 toward the effort.

The guidebooks are key tools of the foundation’s open government work in Georgia. They include the Red Book, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, and the Blue Book, a Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia. We last updated those books in 2014 and we’ve used them extensively in our training of public officials. The new funds also will help us create a new Yellow Book, A Guide to Open Records and Courts in Georgia, detailing transparency requirements in the workings of the state’s legal system.

Our next major event is our Legislative Breakfast near the start of the General Assembly session, and we are in the process of scheduling training events throughout 2019 for the public and government officials.  If you would like to schedule training on open government in your area, send us an email and we’ll figure out how to work you into the schedule.  Keep up with our news on gfaf.org and via our e-newsletters.

As Judge Jim Bodiford reminded us at the Weltner Banquet, quoting Georgia’s constitution: “’Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.’ That’s something that we could probably read and review every day.”

Wise words from Jim Bodiford.

We hope you will engage with the foundation as we take on this important educational work.

Wishing you the best for the holiday season,

Richard T. Griffiths

President, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

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.