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Some officials seek to strengthen sunshine laws
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Open records law

The statewide law regarding the charge for an open records request is as follows:
50-18-71
(a) In all cases where an interested member of the public has a right to inspect or take extracts or make copies from any public records, instruments, or documents, any such person shall have the right of access to the records, documents, or instruments for the purpose of making photographs or reproductions of the same while in the possession, custody, and control of the lawful custodian thereof, or his authorized deputy. Such work shall be done under the supervision of the lawful custodian of the records, who shall have the right to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the work. The work shall be done in the room where the records, documents, or instruments are kept by law. While the work is in progress, the custodian may charge the person making the photographs or reproductions of the records, documents, or instruments at a rate of compensation to be agreed upon by the person making the photographs and the custodian for his services of the services of a deputy in supervising the work.
(b) Where fees for certified copies or other copies or records are specifically authorized or otherwise prescribed by law, such specific fee shall apply.
(c) Where no fee is otherwise provided by law, the agency may charge and collect a uniform copying fee not to exceed 25 [cents] per page.
(d) In addition, a reasonable charge may be collected for search, retrieval, and other direct administrative costs for complying with a request under this Code section. The hourly charge shall not exceed the salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who, in the discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for the first quarter hour.
(e) An agency shall utilize the most economical means available for providing copies of public records.
(f) Where information requested is maintained by computer, an agency may charge the public its actual cost of a computer disk or tape onto which the information is transferred and may charge for the administrative time involved as set forth in subsection (d) of this Code section.

It is possible that Georgia’s sunshine laws may be shining brighter in the coming years.

Three state legislators are pushing for a comprehensive change to Georgia’s open records and meetings laws, the so-called “sunshine” laws. Some of the changes, proposed by state representatives from Tifton, Atlanta and Decatur, would raise penalties for not complying with open meetings laws and make more documents and government discussions public.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, R-Decatur, who is one of the sponsors of the legislation, said it is time for legislators to make comprehensive changes to the state’s open records laws. Oliver said that in her roughly 17 sessions in the General Assembly, there have been no comprehensive changes.

Statewide lawsuits over access — specifically one in Oliver’s district that accuses DeKalb County of illegally concealing information about the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport — spurred Oliver and State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, to move for the revisions.

The proposal calls for a $5,000 fine for illegally closing a government meeting and deletes an exemption allowing government officials to discuss pending or potential litigation behind closed doors. Other proposed changes require hospitals that receive government funding to release documents showing how government funding is used.

“I don’t believe we have consistency in the exemptions we’ve passed,” Oliver said. “... I think that one of the goals is to look at what we’ve passed in the form of exemptions and decide what our policy should be in a comprehensive, uniform manner.”

Local government officials have also called for changes to open records laws.

In December, Hall County commissioners asked state legislators from the area to consider raising the fee for retrieving government records. At the time, county officials said they had been inundated with requests and asked legislators to allow them to charge more than 25 cents per copy.

But by crossover day — the day by which statewide legislation with a start in one chamber must pass to the other chamber for a vote — no such change made it on the books.

State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who was in Iraq when county officials made the plea in December, said that he had not even heard of the request.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said the state’s budget took priority this legislative session, and local representatives never had the chance to discuss the county’s request.

“I haven’t even thought any more about it,” Rogers said.

Rogers said he did not know whether he would support legislation to raise the fees for records requests, and Collins also said he would need more information before forming an opinion.

“Without looking at it, thinking about it for a minute, I would not as a general purpose ... want to put anything that would hinder someone from an open records request...” Collins said. “But also I think there are some issues where there may be a cause to have it a little bit higher just to keep ... the frivolous, ‘let’s just go do it because we can’ kind of thing.”

Not just county officials think the state laws need a fresh look. Gainesville City Clerk Denise Jordan said usually her office spends more time than it can bill for when filling open records requests.

The city clerk’s office spent more than 173 billable hours processing records requests last year, according to a log the office provided to The Times through an open records request.

Jordan said she suspects that the office spent even more time on the requests determining what could and could not be released, but that the office did not record that time because it is not billable under state law. Jordan said the office probably spends more money in employee time than it charges to fill records requests.

“Unless it’s something just really simple, we have to research the law to make sure that we are in compliance with it with regards to what we release,” Jordan said. “And sometimes, it’s not as clear as saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and requires you to do a little digging and do some interpretation and sometimes you have to call several people and get the city attorney involved.”

One of the intentions of Oliver and Chambers’ call for reform to the open records law is to make it easier for government officials, journalists and citizens to know what should be available to the public.

The proposed changes would tighten up the language and reorganize the piece-meal law, separating its exemptions from its requirements. Currently, the two are mixed, Chambers said.

“Instead of having to hire an attorney and go read it several times to figure out what the law is, I think any citizen should be able to go in there and read the statute and understand what their rights are as far as open records go,” Chambers said.

Whatever changes that come to the state’s sunshine laws will require extensive discussions, which Chambers said she hopes will occur this summer.

Chambers said she expects it to take months for state legislators to cinch the changes. She’s already been pushing her bill for two and a half years.

“This bill is intended to be a starting point and needs to have several months of examination, discussion and hearings,” Chambers said. “I admit that up front.”

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