The Georgia General Assembly approved a makeover to statewide Sunshine Laws in the last week of this year’s legislative session.
The bill aims to clarify rules on open meetings and open records for Georgia agencies, including city and county governments.
“Government needs to be open and transparent. That’s the basis on which all government should operate,” state Sen. Butch Miller said.
At the same time, the bill would close off open records requests for big economic development projects still under negotiations.
The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal.
Local government officials say many of the revisions in the bill already were in practice.
“I can’t see that it changed a whole lot,” Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “I think it’s stuff the county always done anyway.”
Introduced in the House, HB 397 overwhelming passed in both chambers.
It would create new rules regulating how governing bodies can conduct meetings, reduce costs for acquiring government documents and increase fines for violations of open government laws.
The open meetings and records overhaul has the support of Attorney General Sam Olens who said in a statement:
“The legislation passed by the Senate today makes great strides toward increasing government transparency in Georgia. It strikes the right balance between ensuring that government is accessible to all Georgians and protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information.”
The bill broadens the interpretations of what constitutes open meetings and requires all votes on public business to be made in public.
Attorney David E. Hudson, general council for the Georgia Press Association, said the bill “should eliminate the practice of public agencies voting by secret ballot.”
One new provision requires for detailed minutes to be kept on executive sessions, meetings legally allowed to be held behind closed doors.
However, those minutes only can be opened by court order.
The bill also offers strong language in support of open records as way for citizens to oversee their governments.
“The General Assembly finds that ... public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of institutions.”
Government officials who unlawfully withhold public records could face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, an increase over the current maximum fine of $500.
Additional violations within a one-year period would carry a maximum $2,500 penalty.
However, the bill does make an exemption for economic development projects.
Those projects could still remain confidential until a binding commitment was secured or the project was terminated.
Earlier in the legislative session, Miller explained his support for such an exception.
When multiple states are competing to entice new businesses, he said, allowing states to view Georgia’s incentives would amount to showing your hand at the poker table.
In the past, Miller said, neighboring states have looked at incentives Georgia was offering to businesses by filing open records requests.
“Once they saw what we were offering, they’d raise the ante,” he said.
Opponents of such a measure in the past have argued such an exception would shut the public out on decisions that could have financial and environmental impacts on communities.
Associated Press contributed to this story.