Several recent events in North Georgia involving government transparency — or the lack thereof — prompted friends and colleagues in other parts of the country to ask whether I am living in some 18th century time warp, as they frequently perceive this portion of the country, where absolutists reign with absolute disregard for their subjects.
After more than 30 years of defending my adopted state against the verbal depredations of outsiders, I must admit that these latest efforts at government secrecy make me wonder the same thing.
One or two such events can be sloughed off as mistakes or bad judgment. But when their numbers begin to mount, a pattern emerges that gives rise to questions about the dedication of these “public servants” to the people that they are supposed to serve and the taxpayer dollars to which they are entrusted.
Perhaps the most egregious example involves the Atlanta Braves, a private corporation, and Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, an elected official. The Braves and Lee worked for several months in absolute secrecy to develop a plan that will end up costing the taxpayers of the county nearly $400 million so the team can move to the suburbs and make more money. While it may be a good business deal for the Braves, the actions of Lee demonstrate not only a lack of government transparency, but downright contempt for the taxpayers of Cobb County.
Lee’s actions call to mind Louis XIV of France in the 17th century when he said: “I am the state.” Louis, like Lee, thought he knew what was best for the people and did it whether they liked it or not. But it was the excesses of Louis XIV and his successors from the House of Bourbon that precipitated the French Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century.
I don’t envision the citizens of Cobb County marching on the county commission with torches and pitchforks any time soon, but it will be interesting to see what they do at the ballot box.
Perhaps more troubling and more of a threat to the average citizens of Georgia are events that occurred recently in Forsyth and Dawson counties. Both involved Nydia Tisdale of Roswell, a self-described “citizen journalist.” Ms. Tisdale attends public meetings with her video camera, records them, and posts what she refers to as “Nydeos” on her web site and YouTube.
Whether she is an accredited journalist, a citizen journalist or simply a citizen matters little. She is a citizen and has a right to attend meetings that are open to the public and to video them if she so desires. What she has become in this part of the state is the Windex attempting to clean the smudged glass behind which certain governmental bodies and individuals are attempting to hide.
Tisdale’s first major run-in with official obfuscation came in April 2012 when Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, who has held that position since 1971, ordered Police Chief Casey Tatum to forcibly remove her and her camera from a City Council meeting, a meeting that is subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act.
State Attorney General Sam Olens took up the case, arguing that Gravitt had violated the law. The city’s attorneys argued that Gravitt was protected by sovereign immunity since he is an elected official. That’s not unlike Louis XIV arguing that he had been divinely ordained to rule France and could do as he pleased, the public be damned.
Judge Robert Adamson did not agree with the city’s argument, or Gravitt’s, and recently granted summary judgment, fining the mayor and the city $12,000 plus attorneys’ fees.
In contravention to all good sense, Cumming officials have indicated they plan to appeal the ruling. That makes one wonder: Is this a government of laws and of the people, or of would-be absolutists?
Coincidentally, the day Tisdale learned of the news of her victory, she was attending a Republican campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawson County. The event had been promoted in a local newspaper as “free and all are welcomed and invited to attend.” A Facebook page prominently featuring photos of Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue listed the event as a “public meetup” hosted by Deal. Other prominent Republicans in attendance included Olens and Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.
According to reports from several eyewitnesses, Tisdale arrived early, had her photo taken with Olens to celebrate the Cumming victory, set up her camera and quietly began filming in clear view of the assembled crowd. Subsequent events are somewhat in dispute, but several published reports indicate that after Hudgens made some intemperate remarks, Tisdale was asked to stop filming. She refused and when meeting organizers asked that she be stopped, a Dawson County sheriff’s deputy apparently forcibly removed her, arrested her, and confiscated her camera (since returned).
The ugly incident could raise some ticklish legal questions regarding the behavior of both the deputy and Tisdale. But Olens has previously opined that just because a meeting is public and the governor is in attendance does not necessarily make it subject to the Open Meetings Act.
More troubling is the fact that Olens was the only Republican in attendance to take umbrage with Tisdale’s removal and arrest. Deal, who signed an updated and enhanced version of the state’s Sunshine Laws only two years ago, said and did nothing. He later said he was “troubled” by the incident.
Republicans claim to be the party of smaller and more open government. Yet here in Georgia they seem to have no qualms about using the police power of the state to expand government to suppress the free flow of information and cloak their accountability from the people they are supposed to represent.
But it may be that Republicans here are only modeling the current Democrat administration in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he promised his administration would be the most transparent ever. Yet in 2013 The Nation magazine reported that the Obama administration has trotted out the World War I Espionage Act to prosecute whistle blowers far more than any administration since the law was enacted.
In January, The New York Times editorialized that the Obama administration “has failed to live up to that promise” of transparency. And The Associated Press reported in March that the “government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst” since Obama took office.
Then there are the issues of the IRS scandal, Benghazi, “Fast and Furious,” and spying on reporters through their phone records. All of these continue to bedevil the Obama administration because of its lack of openness about them.
Whether it is at a Republican rally in Dawson County, a city council meeting in Cumming or some larger issue emanating from the nation’s capital affecting a broader segment of the American public, the right of citizens to know what its government and the officials entrusted with it are doing is a right that is inherent in our system of government. It is not something that is subject to the whims of political expediency by either Democrats or Republicans.
Otherwise, we might as well bring back the likes of Louis XIV. He may have been a tyrant, but at least he admitted it.
Ron Martz spent 40 years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor. He now teaches journalism and history at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.