Our views: Lawsuit was filed over public’s need to know
At issue in the Open Records Act case is an anonymous letter sent to the city alleging improprieties by Shuler. The city has refused to release an unedited version of the letter, making available only a copy which had the names of three city employees "redacted," or removed.
The newspaper and the city have negotiated for months over the letter, which accused the former city manager of sexually harassing city employees. At odds is whether the city legally redacted the names of the three employees mentioned in the letter.
The incident led to Shuler's resignation.
The newspaper, represented by attorneys David Hudson of Augusta and Steve Gilliam of Gainesville, filed suit Tuesday, asking a judge to decide whether the names are exempt from the requirements of open government under the state's Open Records Act.
When Shuler resigned Nov. 13, he claimed as his reason the need to tend to his ailing parents in South Carolina. City Council stood by that statement at the time.
But documents obtained through an Open Records Act request showed that Shuler had been accused of sexual harassment and that City Council members were aware of and investigating the allegation.
One of the documents the newspaper reviewed was an edited version of an anonymous letter sent to the city that accused Shuler of calling and sending text messages to two employees late at night.
The city redacted the names of the two employees Shuler was accused of harassing and also kept private the name of a third employee listed in the letter who was not involved with the allegation.
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said council members decided to keep the names private because they did not see the benefit in releasing the names.
"We didn't see any benefit to anybody in releasing the names of the people and the women involved and just did not believe that it would ... serve any purpose and therefore we are unwilling to release the names," Bruner said.
Hudson is the general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and has been involved in numerous open government cases. He said The Times filed suit because the newspaper's right to access trumps the city's desire to keep the names private. Sunshine laws apply to all documents prepared or received by the city unless a specific exemption applies, he said.
When it redacted the names, the city cited an exemption to the state's Open Records Act that allows governments to withhold "medical or veterinary records and similar files, the disclosure of which would be an invasion of personal privacy."
"In this instance, no exemption allows the city to withhold names within the letter of complaint," Hudson said.
Yet state courts have previously stood by rights to personal privacy in similar cases, said Sam Harben Jr., the attorney representing the city.
"We believe that the letter is an open record, but the names of these ... individuals who didn't ask to have their names put in the letter that these individuals should have some measure of personal privacy," he said.
The lawsuit comes four months after Shuler's resignation. But Hudson said the newspaper's lawsuit over the right to the unedited letter remains relevant.
"Use of those names in a news article may or may not ever take place - that is not the point," Hudson said. "The point is that the public and the press have a right to inspect the documents in order to fulfill the purposes of the Open Records Act as described by the Georgia Supreme Court: ‘to evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficiency and proper functioning of (public) institutions.'"
Harben said the lawsuit is the result of the newspaper's failure to compromise with the city.
During months of negotiation, the city offered to provide the unedited letter to The Times with the stipulation that the newspaper not print the names without permission of those mentioned, Harben said.
The Times refused that compromise, Harben said.
"The Times has been unwilling to accept anything other than exactly what The Times wants, and I haven't found any real effort to compromise from The Times' people," Harben said.
The newspaper claims the city's offer was not sufficient under state law, according to The Times' publisher, Dennis Stockton.
"We have tried in every way we know how to avoid going to court over this matter, all to no avail," Stockton said. "We are perplexed that the city has said it cannot legally release the information we've requested, but that it will do so anyway if we make certain promises about what we will do with it."